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Saturday, August 7, 2010

TSR Summary I: Conditional Use Application

The Teanaway Solar Reserve project highlights one of the challenges of development decisions in any county: what to do with projects that aren't really a good fit for the location, but which owners of the property want to do anyway? What if the project is a really bad fit?

My thinking on this issue took less research than the well moratorium issue (posted July 12), since I know a fair amount about renewable energy. I learned the most about zoning and the County Code as I consulted the following sources:
  • A Kittitas County Office of Community Development official
  • The Strategies 306 representative in Cle Elum
  • A Cle Elum city official
  • The websites and news items listed in my post on July 20
  • The Kittitas County Code
Sorting through information about any project involves deciding which information from supporters and opponents is both factual and relevant, and some things that might seem relevant to supporters or opponents actually aren't relevant when it comes to officially making the land-use decisions.

One thing that is clear is that the site is not excellent, or even very good, for generating solar energy. According to a state solar map, the location receives 3.7-3.8 kW/m2 of solar energy. National solar maps show that there are many locations in the Southwest that receive more than 7 kW/m2. It's hard to find any locations in Washington that are competitive when it comes to solar energy, but here's one example, in Richland. It's in a location that receives 4.1-4.2 kW/m2, and it is a demonstration project, not a utility-scale project. The TSR location seems to have been chosen because it is convenient as a result of the relationships between the various players. Motives are important, but not necessarily relevant when it comes to land use decisions.

What is relevant is how a project relates to the County Code. In this case, the relevant part of the Code is mostly in Title 17 (Zoning), specifically 17.56 (Forest and Range Zone) which is the current zoning of the project site. The Purpose and Intent section of 17.56 says,
The purpose and intent of this zone is to provide for areas of Kittitas County wherein natural resource management is the highest priority and where the subdivision and development of lands for uses and activities incompatible with resource management are discouraged.
I expect "resource management" in the Forest and Range Zone was intended to mean things like, well, forest and rangeland, not solar resources, which wouldn't have been part of the traditional understanding of the phrase back when this part of the Code was written.

For each zoning category, there is a list of uses that are allowed without asking the county's permission, and there is a list of uses that are "conditional," meaning the owner/developer needs to get a conditional use permit before proceeding. Although a major solar farm is very unlike any of the conditional uses listed in 17.56, a later section, 17.61 (Utilities) says that utility developments of various kinds are conditional uses in some zones; TSR is what's called a "major alternative energy facility." That means it's worth at least asking the county's permission to do the project.

Whew. It took a fair amount of writing and reading for us just to get to understanding that submitting a conditional use application is worth a try, but it's interesting to learn how all this works. Tune in next time for more on the application (the actual decision is up to the Board of Adjustment, of course).

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