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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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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