The Inyo County Board of Supervisors made a difficult and potentially game-changing decision on Monday in a Special Meeting at the BOS Room in Independence to revoke their Renewable Solar and Wind Energy General Plan Amendment (GPA). The reason? A Sierra Club and Center for Biological Diversity (CBD) lawsuit alleging the county should have prepared an Environmental Impact Report (EIR) pursuant to the California Environmental Quality Act (CEQA) to approve the GPA.
In essence, the GPA was a tool constructed by the county to narrow down the 90% of Inyo County open to renewable energy development under the current General Plan into 5-10%. Getting from 90% to 5-10% took a process based on input from public officials, members of the public, alternative energy developers, public agencies, the U.S. Military, local tribes, and others, as well as a series of public outreach meetings.
Ultimately the GPA produced 15 Overlay area maps representing 5-10% of Inyo open to potential development. The county looked at the following criteria when determining the Overlay maps: 1) areas with known interest in renewable wind and solar energy development, 2) proximity to transmission and electrical conveyance facilities and 3) appropriate terrain, which included flat spaces for solar, and ridgelines for wind. Inyo County Planning Director Joshua Hart also noted that the Overlay areas took into account viewshed requirements, sensitive species and designated Areas of Environmental Concern (ACES).
But one thing the county didn’t do was complete an EIR for the Overlay areas, something Hart maintained “is not required. We could speculate about the impacts of certain projects, but that’s discouraged in CEQA. We didn’t feel it was appropriate and moreover, an EIR is expensive.”
In many cases, an EIR is completed by the developer wishing to build a project in a particular area. However, Mark Bagley, Sierra Club Representative for the Lower Owens River Project, countered when asked about Hart’s comments that “leaving all environmental analysis to a future project-by-project basis is not the way it’s supposed to be done.” He added that “it is not at all unusual to have to do an EIR on a General Plan.” Bagley and the Sierra Club believed that in creating the GPA, Inyo County violated environmental laws. They sued the county accordingly.
The Sierra Club’s primary fear was that, by designating these Overlay areas, the county was encouraging development that could still have a detrimental impact to native populations like the common ground squirrel. That the maps made note of Overlay areas within Mojave Ground Squirrel Management Areas, as well as areas with a proximity to ACES and traditional Timbisha-Shoshone lands, was considered too little too late by the Sierra Club.
“We feel that the general idea of determining some areas might be better than others for renewable energy development is a good one,” Bagley said; “but not well-executed here.”
The county saw it differently. Said CAO Kevin Carunchio at Monday’s meeting, “The true irony of this situation is it was the county’s own initiative to provide another layer of environmental protection that doesn’t exist in federal and state regulations.” By stripping away the GPA, the Sierra Club and CBD have reopened 90% of Inyo to development, much of which the county’s studies found to be unsuitable for economic, cultural, and environmental reasons.
Though the County participated in mandatory settlement negotiations with Sierra Club and CBD, they couldn’t reach a solution that would allow the GPA to remain adopted by the Board. The threat was then a financial one: should the county lose a single issue in the case, it would be vulnerable to paying attorney fees, which could range in the hundreds of thousands of dollars.
Inyo County Counsel Randy Keller explained, “All they need is one expert to your 10, and they have a fair argument about environmental impact. There’s no guarantee we could prevail. If there were, the decision would have been different.”
“We’re in a difficult spot,” agreed District 1 Supervisor Linda Arcularius. “And I’m disappointed that there’s not anyone here to speak to why we have to do this.” No Sierra Club or CBD members were in attendance.
Litigation has become an increasingly popular tool among environmental groups, particularly the Tuscon, Ariz.-based Center for Biological Diversity. Founder Kierán Suckling boasted in an interview with High Country News this year that the company “engages in psychological warfare by causing stress to already stressed public servants.”
Recently an Arizona rancher, Jim Chilton, won a lawsuit against CBD by proving that photos the Center used to claim his grazing allotment was cow-denuded were actually photos of a campsite and parking lot. In other words, CBD may not always be known for playing ‘green.’
Still, Bagley maintained, “this is how CEQA gets enforced primarily; citizen challenge county or state actions. This is the way the system works.”
Planning Commissioner Sam Wasson summed up the sentiments of many in attendance at Monday’s meeting: “When you reach a stage where you have to have an EIR to determine whether you need an EIR, I don’t know what this country’s coming to.”
The only bright side? “This study doesn’t go away,” said District 3 Supervisor Rick Pucci. “The research is still available to help either residents for or against particular projects. So I think it wasn’t a waste.”