By: Rhonda Bodfield
ARIZONA DAILY STAR
June 22, 2011
The Pima County Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a vast solar energy farm west of the Tucson Mountains that was pitched as a linchpin for the area’s ability to lure such commercial ventures in the future.
The project, by FRV Tucson Solar, pitted heavyweights in the business community against nearby residents, who said the roughly 300-acre project with thousands of photovoltaic solar panels wasn’t compatible with their neighborhood.
“This project is not a bad project, but it is in a terrible location,” argued Rick Westfall, whose property is next to the proposed site. With the huge business community turnout supporting the project, Westfall characterized the fight as one between David and Goliath – adding that he wasn’t naive enough to think his side was likely to win.
Joanne McKearney, another neighbor, objected that neighbors never got their questions answered, although they received hundreds of pages of documents in what she characterized as a last-minute data dump. “I’m tired of hearing they’re a good neighbor,” she said. “They are not a good neighbor.”
But advocates insisted denial would discourage other companies from gambling on similar investments.
Paul Bonavia, president of Tucson Electric Power Co. and its parent company, UniSource Energy Corp., said he has been working with financial interests to market Tucson as a solar-friendly city.
“You have to show them a favorable marketplace to get them to come here,” he told the supervisors.
Under a 20-year agreement, TEP will purchase energy produced by the plant – enough to power 4,500 homes. The plant will be the utility’s single largest source of solar energy once it is completed next April. To put that in context, the utility provides power to 402,000 customers in the metropolitan area.
Mike Varney, president of the Tucson Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce, and Michael Guymon, a vice president with Tucson Regional Economic Opportunities, also urged approval, saying the community needed to send a message that it supports sustainable energy development.
Advocates note the construction of the project will create as many as 300 jobs in the short term. Longer term, only a handful of security and maintenance workers will be needed.
The project has been stalled since its first county hearing in November by neighbors’ concerns about possible emissions, noise, heat effects and property values. The county staff since determined emissions would be essentially nonexistent compared with conventional power plants. And project operators agreed to a larger setback, a wall and landscaping to reduce the visual impact.
The county staff asserted there will be no impact on property values, since the solar farm won’t be seen by nearby residents and won’t produce noise or emissions.
Supervisor Sharon Bronson, who represents the area, said the concerns of the neighbors resulted in a stronger project, but ultimately, “We have to make a decision on what is good for the entire community.”
Contact reporter Rhonda Bodfield at email@example.com or 573-4243.