Solar flares

A new solar panel project at Butte College has neighbors hot under the collar

LIKE A ROCK Maria Rock surveys her property line that borders Butte College. A new solar panel array will soon be installed 30 feet from Rock’s fence line and looks to save the school around $300,000 a year.

LIKE A ROCK Maria Rock surveys her property line that borders Butte College. A new solar panel array will soon be installed 30 feet from Rock’s fence line and looks to save the school around $300,000 a year.

Photo By Tom Angel

Solar energy can be a great thing—unless it comes in the form of big solar panels camped right next to your property.

That’s the situation some neighbors of Butte College are facing. They say that the college is not being very, well, neighborly.

The college’s nearby residents say that, not only did Butte fail to properly notify them, but that it also hasn’t properly identified the possible environmental impacts of a solar-panel plant that could eventually take up to 13 acres of campus land.

Maria Rock, who lives on Cory Creek Road near the college, has been the most vocal in opposition to the project. Rock owns 37 acres adjacent to the campus property on the northwest side.

Nearly 6,000 panels will be installed about 30 feet from Rock’s fence line, which she said will affect property value as well as the environment. Rock said the project will ruin the beauty of the area and that she finds the solar panels off Highway 70 near Oroville to be “very unsightly.”

Rock first made her argument at a Butte College Board of Trustees meeting Oct. 27. She said the school failed to notify her or any of the neighbors about the project.

“This is ludicrous,” she said after the meeting. “They think they can get away with this because they’re this huge public entity.”

Rock said she first caught wind of the solar panels at the Farmer’s Cafà in Durham when she overheard employees from Sun Power & Geothermal Energy discussing the project. Sun Power also designed and installed the solar panels for the Butte County offices off Highway 70.

Ron Womack, who lives with his wife Janice on Williams Road west of the college, said he found out about the project from his dentist, who also happens to live near the campus.

He said that, while the panels are not visible from his property, he is not happy with the college’s failure to notify the neighbors directly.

“What’s more upsetting than the panels is the lack of being a good neighbor,” Womack said.

Les Jauron, director of facilities planning and management at Butte, said the college has taken the necessary measures to inform the public and that the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) offers three options for project notification.

Jauron said the college has used the same procedure for past developments. He said it sent notification to the county and the State Clearinghouse, which receives and distributes environmental documents in accordance with CEQA. He said notices were also posted on campus along with the distribution of 1,600 campus-wide e-mails. Several news articles have also been written about the project.

“If this was a secret, it was the worst-kept secret ever,” Jauron said.

Preliminary work on Phase I of the project has already begun with the grading of three acres on the northwest side of the campus.

The college used CEQA guidelines in preparing its negative declaration, meaning there will be little or no impact on the environment. It is the second CEQA process the land has gone through, with the first being in 2002 when Butte College drafted its Master Plan.

Rock said she is not against the idea of solar panels but said the college glazed over certain environmental impacts on the property in preparing its negative declaration.

“I am definitely for solar; it’s an amazing thing,” she said. “But not at the abandonment of the environment.”

Rock has since filed suit against the Butte/Glenn Community College District and the Butte/Glenn Community College District Board of Trustees under the name Butte Valley Preservation Society. She is seeking a Writ of Mandate, which asks the court to challenge the negative declaration.

Andrea Jones, from the United States Army Corps of Engineers, has surveyed the land for both the college and Rock.

Jones used guidelines from the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA) to find that bulldozing had disrupted the flow of an ephemeral stream, which is a stream that runs during times of heavy rain. If the stream is diverted, it could have a jurisdictional impact, meaning the water would stop its natural flow leading through Rock’s property to Little Dry Creek and eventually to the Sacramento River.

The land was originally cut so the stream would run into the school’s storm water flow system. Jauron said mitigation measures will be taken to redirect the natural water flow back to Rock’s property. He said the process is simple and that the college has gone to great lengths to avoid harming the land.

“The planning involved rivaled that of the Normandy invasion,” Jauron said.

Mike Miller, assistant director of facilities planning and management at Butte, said this particular location was perfect because of the proximity to the buildings receiving the power. He said the panels lose efficiency if they are placed too far from the buildings. He added that constructing a new building on the land would be much more harmful to the environment.

“Putting in a solar plant is one of the least impactive things you can do,” said Miller, who’s worked at the college for 20 years.

Miller said the $7.4 million price tag for Phase I of the project is being paid for by a California Public Utilities Commission rebate that covers half of the cost. He said the money the school saves annually on its energy bill will be used to pay the other half.

Miller said the solar field will pay for itself in about 12 years and that the panels have a life expectancy of about 25-30 years.

The project will control energy costs by powering about one-third of the campus’ electricity. The solar panels will generate 900 kilowatts of power and feed a total of seven buildings on campus, including the Allied Health/Public Service center and the Campus Center building.

Monique Gurr, Butte County regional manager at Sun Power, said that, between the two larger buildings and the five additional that will be powered by the project, the college is looking to save in the neighborhood of $300,000 a year in electricity costs.

Gurr also said the panels are practically maintenance free. They have an automated cleaning system, and a monitoring system would alert the company of any problems.

Future plans for Phase II and Phase III of the project are still uncertain. Jauron said it all depends on funding and that the college is only concentrating on Phase I for now.

“My guess is you won’t see Phase II or Phase III real quick, if at all."