Alternative Energy, Please...But Not in My Backyard

Petaluma says proposal to create 23-acre solar farm east of town would alter the area's rural character. The operator says it can create clean energy for 750 local homes. Can common ground be reached?


Sonoma County generally looks favorably upon alternative energy.

But a plan to build a 22-acre solar farm just outside Petaluma has drawn concern from the city, which says the project will ruin the scenic gateway into town and spoil the area’s natural beauty.

The proposed photovoltaic power plant would be located at the corner of Frates and Adobe road and is a project of Coldwell Solar, a commercial and residential solar energy company based in Rocklin, Calif. 

The company wants to lease land, generate solar energy, then sell it back to PG&E. (The PG&E substation is conveniently located across the street.) Coldwell Solar estimates it can generate 4 megawatts of energy, enough to offset power for 750 Petaluma homes.

Calls to the company were not returned by press time, but according to plans submitted to Sonoma County’s Permit and Resource Management Department, the solar farm would have security fencing around the perimeter with landscaping to hide the panels from drivers’ view.

But Heather Hines, a planning manager with the city of Petaluma, said that if the project is allowed to move forward, it would forever alter the rural character of the area.

“What they are proposing is a solar farm with a chain link fence and barbed wire and that’s really changing look and feel of the gateway into Petaluma,” Hines said.

The site also borders Petaluma’s Urban Growth Boundary that separates land available for development from protected areas. In the document, Frates Road is specifically identified as a gateway into Petaluma that transitions passersby from a rural setting to one that is more urban, Hines said.

The bigger problem is that the site is zoned for agriculture, meaning that designation would have to be changed before a solar farm is permitted. On Tuesday, the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors was set to consider changes to make zoning ordinances for renewable energy projects more flexible, a decision that would have likely benefitted the proposed solar project, but continued the issue to August.

When the renewable energy zoning standards are updated, it will be important to strike a balance between the quest for alternative energy and preserving Sonoma County’s open spaces, said Sonoma County Supervisor David Rabbitt.

“The intrinsic value of the property (at Adobe and Frates) is valuable to open space and agriculture,” Rabbitt said. “We all support and encourage renewable energy projects, but are we really ready to accept a 20 acres of solar on the ground? We may want to take more baby steps instead of giving someone cart blanche right now.”

Rabbitt said he would soon be meeting with the Adobe Creek Homeowners’ Association to discuss the plan and said the Board of Supervisors would be looking to the city of Petaluma in weighing its decision on whether to grant Coldwell Solar a permit.

“As we move forward, we need to consider where we want to open up opportunities for solar production, beyond your own roof, so that we don’t have acres and acres of solar panels on the ground," Rabbitt said.

"Once you start placing panels on the ground and using up valuable ag land, the value of that land gets lost."

The parcel at Adobe and Frates Road is owned by Frates Project LLC, a company registered in Alamo, Calif. It was previously owned by Peter Pfendler, owner of Pfendler Vineyards, who died in 2007.

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David Keller May 09, 2013 at 07:11 AM
There is absolutely no reason to sacrifice prime agricultural lands and soils, which is what this agriculturally zoned parcel is, for conversion to an industrial solar installation. Sonoma County prides itself on its agricultural products, and this land would be forever taken out of agricultural use, in violation of the County's General Plan. Priority for locating industrial solar installations should be on large commercial rooftops (think office and industrial park buildings and shopping centers), parking lots, poor soils and other non-productive brownfields, which are abundant in cities. How about at the County landfill? At the airport? Let's make sure that in the desire to support solar installations (which I do), we don't sacrifice key prime agricultural or forest lands to do it. This is a very important decision for the County, and the City has correctly shared its concerns about gateway presentation and industrial occupancy of what are supposed to remain productive rural/agricultural lands.
Paul Andersen May 09, 2013 at 02:53 PM
If you go to the "corner" of Adobe & Frates, guess what you'll find. An exisiting power generation substation! Hmmmm, a solar array next to a power substation. Sounds like smart planning to me. http://goo.gl/maps/GlPBx
David Devoto May 09, 2013 at 03:06 PM
Mr. Keller is very consistent with his views, and I agree with him this time. I may be naive, but can solar panels collect power through the fog? It would seem like the hills make more sense. In the late 60's I wrote a paper that basically wondered how fast solar power would grow if the rights were held by a major entity like a GM (forget about the oil issue). I wrote this because California was already starting a solar movement. I cannot believe it has been over 40 years with so little progress. Still we need to be sensible and not become Livermore.
Sid Hartha May 09, 2013 at 03:12 PM
Of course solar belongs on roof tops and airports. It's kinda funny that people who just LOVE hundreds of acres of wasted space full of Target and Friedmans object to solar energy. Petaluma is really far behind the smart curve.
Middle Class May 09, 2013 at 04:56 PM
"The gateway to Petaluma." These people are silly, they must have never driven through the "gateway". It's a poorly maintained road, leading to a stop sign everyone hates and doesn't stop at, passing an old ugly giant PG&E facility, next to an ugly golf course with one of the most dangerous walking paths in the world running parallel to Frates Rd, and a historic park we can't afford to maintain. The gateway to no place special, lets not get too full of ourselves.
JACQUI KING May 09, 2013 at 05:01 PM
Ask your Supervisor to pass a Solar Ordinance which requires Solar Hot Water on all new residences built in the County and Solar PV on all new comercial buildings built in the county. Make it part of the building code just like efficient windows and lighting are now.
Reginald "Rex" Henderson May 09, 2013 at 05:58 PM
Keller-- For once, I am in complete agreement with you!
Reginald "Rex" Henderson May 09, 2013 at 05:59 PM
This solar stuff is like magic!
Kaye May 09, 2013 at 06:24 PM
Which 750 homes will be blessed with the new solar energy???? Certainly not mine. Seems this company is taking the easy road to make money. And what rate will the ever so lucky 750 home owners have to pay? The same rate as PG&E? A higher rate? Lower rate? Building a 22 acre solar farm on open space is far easier than doing the right thing and putting solar panels on existing buildings and residence. Solar energy is a good idea, but we cannot continue to chop up our open spaces just because someone shows up with an "Idea" for a new use. I'm beginning to think insanity is the new normal. Caltrans is busy killing our swallows with the easy way out netting, chopping down Egret and Heron nesting trees, Dutra wanting to place an asphalt plant adjacent to our bird santuary, next to Smart Train railroad and definitely the gateway to the southern entrance to Petaluma. Oh and lest not forget another gateway nightmare - Davidon!!! Building McMonster mansions in a "gated" community adjacent to Helen Putnam Park, polluting Kelly Creek, destroying a heritage red barn and clogging up D street with more traffic congestion. Who are all of these people anyway??? And for the record I think the Regency development is a gigantic eyesore.
David Devoto May 09, 2013 at 06:54 PM
Well said.
Sheri Cardo May 09, 2013 at 07:09 PM
Protecting Sonoma County's farmland is not a NIMBY issue as the headline would imply. Common sense, people!
Laurie Erickson May 09, 2013 at 07:13 PM
I would be excited and proud to see a field full of solar panels in Petaluma. Empty agricultural land used to generate clean energy sounds a lot better to me than contaminating land and water with Fracking - which will be coming soon to California if the oil companies and Jerry Brown have anything to say about it. If we want to clean up the environment and change the way we get our energy, we may have to be open to something that looks a little different.
Kaye May 09, 2013 at 07:48 PM
Perhaps a better location for the solar panels would be on top of our soon-to-open eyesore Regency Big Boxes. I have no idea if Target is going solar, but if not, they should. The reason most of us moved to Petaluma was because of the open spaces, driving past black and white cows contently chewing on grass, a storybook downtown, a drawbridge, train whistles and practically perfect weather. If I wanted to live in subdivision after subdivision, big box development and endless freeways I would have moved to San Jose. No one is saying no to the solar panels. But solar panels can be placed anywhere on anything. They do not need to steal our limited open space. As I think about it, maybe the 750 homes will be placed under the solar panels. Hmmmmm.........
Barry Bussewitz May 09, 2013 at 08:42 PM
Solar panels situated above the parking lot at the Regency Center would provide both power generation and also shade for the cars. Petaluma High School has this configuration now. This is being done now at Solano Community College, where they expect a great financial benefit!
Travis May 09, 2013 at 10:17 PM
Is this the twilight zone? How do people get off in telling other people what they can and can't do with land that they own. They are not building a dump, airport or a asphalt plant people. It is a solar farm. If you dont like the look of it being there then buy the land if you want to own it and grow hay. By the way you can't make money doing that unless you have owned the land for 100 years and don't really pay taxes.
Ptown May 10, 2013 at 12:09 AM
Typical Petaluma hypocritical nimbyism.
John Hess May 10, 2013 at 12:58 AM
I don't care if a solar city is built...as long as it's paid for with private money, not from public taxes.
Kevin King May 10, 2013 at 03:10 PM
If the spot was profitable as a farm or other agriculture, it would already be used for that. Do we really need more wine grapes planted in this region? Because that's the likely crop if zoning stays the same. I'm not sure a solar plant works, given that Petaluma isn't the most sunny of cities, but it could be better than the other alternative for the site: more homes. I imagine the city would have no problem with rezoning for residential (because that's more tax revenue), even though homes can be larger ecological blights than a solar power station.
Sheri Cardo May 10, 2013 at 06:01 PM
The company would LEASE the land that they would alter forever with this project. They don't own it. It's a mystery to me why anyone would lease their land to be ruined in this way. If you like to eat, agricultural land is not appropriate for large solar projects. As already stated, rooftops and parking lots make more sense.
Mimi Pallas May 10, 2013 at 11:48 PM
Personally, I would rather see a solar farm than another freakin shopping center or housing development. To make it more aesthetically pleasing, add a hedge of some sort like bamboo around the chain link fence.
Susan Kirks May 11, 2013 at 04:47 PM
22 acres is too large. This is not a "farm." The terms "solar farm" and "wind farm" need to be changed to reflect what's real. This is an industrial solar project. For commercial/industrial solar to be profitable for the owners, a minimum of 5 acres is needed. Even that is too much in this location. It's proposed there because it's next to a power grid. Solar company owners and installers already have ID'd parcels in Sonoma County (by map) where they want to install large projects. This is not a NIMBY issue and to infer that is inaccurate. The industry has been "working" this since the ordinance began to be finalized and reviewed. Commenters who've said where solar installations belong - rooftops, in commercial areas already, etc. - not on prime land that is open space with rural agricutlural potential - are right. People in our area best wake up - MUCH of the County's :Land Extensive Agriculture" zoning is in the 2nd District and the 1st District (South and Southeast Sonoma County). Residents of North and West Sonoma Co. may be relieved to be able to look the other way and think, oh, good, they can put it "down there." This 22-acre proposal is just the beginning. The City of Petaluma is right - the location is wrong. Taking up large swaths of land to install commercial projects is not wise and not necessary. Identifying appropriate locations will preserve rural character, gateways, and our scenic and important open spaces - the hallmarks of Sonoma County.
Ptown May 11, 2013 at 10:20 PM
To the nimbys: It's not industrial solar invasion . It's common sense, 20 acres of land next to power station. Powering hundreds of PETALUMA homes. Or 20 acres of rooftops, um duh.


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