Jul 28, 2014
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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?

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


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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