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Solar panels planned on prime farmland

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners has given tentative approval for a 90-acre solar panel project that would be located on prime agricultural land outside Medford.

The $12.7 million project proposed by Origis Energy would have 37,905 solar panels along Rossanley Drive, also known as Highway 238. The company has energy projects around the world.

On Wednesday, commissioners granted the project an exception to a state goal that calls for the preservation of agricultural land for farm use. Commissioners will consider additional steps to finalize the approval on May 31 and June 14.

Commissioners did impose a condition that the solar farm be dismantled after 30 years so the land can be returned to agricultural use. Origis Energy had hoped for a 45-year life for the project.

"This is not going to be urbanized. This is not going to be houses," said Commissioner Bob Strosser.

If the project wins final approval, Origis Energy hopes to install solar panels, poles, lines, fencing and other parts of the solar farm during the second half of this year. The installation would employ about 100 people, but only the equivalent of one full-time worker would be employed thereafter for the maintenance and operation of the project, said Michael Chestone, a consultant for Origis Energy.

Jackson County Planning Commissioner Brad Bennington came to speak at Wednesday's public hearing but said he was speaking individually, not as a planning commissioner. When the issue came to the Planning Commission, members were unable to agree on the project.

Bennington said he normally is a proponent of private property rights, but high quality farmland shouldn't be taken out of production for large-scale solar projects. He said local residents used to be able to make a living and raise their families by farming, ranching and logging, but Oregon has changed.

Bennington said he doesn't oppose solar energy, but he doesn't think Origis Energy's purpose is to benefit the community.

"The bottom line is they're in it for the money," he said.

Chestone said the solar project is beneficial. Local electricity will be sold to a power company, offsetting the need for the power company to build expensive transmission facilities to bring additional power to the Rogue Valley. The project helps Oregon meet its goals to promote renewable energy and stop using electricity generated by coal.

Representatives from the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development spoke out against the solar project at the meeting.

"This is a special area for agriculture," said Josh Lebombardi, Southern Oregon regional representative for the agency.

He noted the site has high quality soil. Additionally, Rogue Valley cities completed a joint process to identify areas that shouldn't be urbanized because of their agricultural value and to create a rural buffer between towns. That area was identified as a place that shouldn't be urbanized.

Lebombardi said the site could support multiple, long-term farm jobs, rather than the single maintenance job for decades provided by the solar project.

In a letter sent to Jackson County's planning department, DLCD said solar project profit margins are slim — prompting companies to target farmland.

"Open agricultural lands can often provide large blocks of property at price points that are appealing to energy developers on a tight budget," the agency said. "More recently we have become aware of an apparent trend of solar applications proposing to develop on high-value farmland."

The land development watchdog group 1000 Friends of Oregon also sent a letter opposing the project, saying large-scale solar projects should be developed on places such as old mining sites, landfills, parking lots and building rooftops — not on farmland and green spaces.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts said the land to be leased for the solar farm by the property's owner is only a fraction of his ownership. Perhaps by earning money off the solar farm lease, he will be able to continue his farming operations on the other land, she said.

Commissioner Rick Dyer said the project puts the property to good economic use while preserving the land beneath the panels.

The solar project would provide 10 megawatts of electricity, plus $1.3 million more in county property taxes compared to farm use, Chestone said.

Staff reporter Vickie Aldous can be reached at 541-776-4486 or valdous@mailtribune.com. Follow her at www.twitter.com/VickieAldous