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Solar panels on farmland win final approval

The Jackson County Board of Commissioners voted 2-1 Wednesday to give final approval for a 37,905-panel solar project on farmland along Rossanley Drive outside Medford.

But many neighbors who came to a public hearing said they had not been notified about the 90-acre solar farm to be built by Florida-headquartered Origis Energy.

The county ran a newspaper notice and sent letters to neighbors within 750 feet of the project. Some neighbors fell outside that boundary, including at least one who said his land borders the property but is more than 750 feet from the site of the solar farm itself. The 90-acre site is part of a much larger piece of property.

Neighbors opposed to the project said prime farmland should not be used for a large-scale solar project.

"We're not against the solar panels. We're just against this location," said local resident Joanne Wilcox. "It's wrong."

On May 10, commissioners unanimously gave initial approval for the solar project after taking testimony from opponents and supporters of the project.

The public hearing Wednesday was only supposed to be about adopting an ordinance to implement that decision — not the merits of the project, according to Jackson County Counsel Joel Benton.

Neighbors who didn't hear about the May 10 meeting used this week's hearing to vent their frustrations and quiz commissioners about why they supported the solar project on farmland.

Commissioner Colleen Roberts changed her mind on the issue and voted against the project Wednesday.

"I've taken a second look at it on many levels," she said.

Roberts said she initially supported the project because she is a backer of property rights, but upon further reflection she became worried about the precedent the decision would set to use farmland for solar projects.

Approval of the solar project required commissioners to grant an exception to a state goal that calls for protecting farmland.

The project was opposed by the Oregon Department of Land Conservation and Development and the land-use watchdog group 1,000 Friends of Oregon.

Commissioners Bob Strosser and Rick Dyer stuck with their decision to approve the project.

Strosser said the solar panel piers and maintenance facilities for the solar farm would only cover a fraction of the 90 acres, and the solar farm will not be permanent.

At the May 10 meeting, commissioners imposed a condition that the solar farm be dismantled after 30 years so the land can be returned to agricultural use.

Dyer said he wished the neighbors and other interested community members had heard about the solar project proposal in time to testify at the May 10 meeting. He said the county may need to re-examine its notification procedures.

Dyer said there was never an intent to exclude people from the process, and commissioners do want and encourage public input.

"It's valued and necessary," he said.

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 $12.7 million project, according to representatives for the company who spoke May 10.

They 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, they said.

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

Solar panels on farmland win final approval