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Solar project approved by narrow commission vote

San Pedro Valley News-Sun of Benson, Arizona

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Cochise County will soon have its first solar power generating plant, though its construction was not unanimously approved by the five members of the Planning and Zoning Commission who attended Wednesday's meeting.

Commissioners Jim Lynch (District 1), Jim Martzke (District 3) and the newest planning and zoning member, Raul Montana (District 2), voted in favor of a special use permit to allow construction of the project, while two other commissioners, Pat Edie and Ron Bemis, both of District 2, voted against granting the permit for the solar power generation plant.

Rainbows Solar Energy, LLC, will construct and operate the 20-megawatt plant using photo-voltaic technology, said Josh Fields, project manager during phone conference at Wednesday's meeting. Fields said he had planned to attend in person, but was told by P&Z staff that it was not clear that there would be a quorum of commissioners attending the meeting.

The split vote came from a perceived problem with the plan to resolve drainage issues on the 320-acre property, located on Rainbow Ranch, that lies between Central Highway ' and Brooks Road near Douglas.

David Bonn, of Kintetix Engineering, explained that all rainwater from the site itself would be channeled to a detention basin on the northeast edge of the property. According to a water flow map provided at the meeting, sheetflow tends to run in a south-north direction with some west to east movement.

That could lead to flooding during large rain events and render birthing pens of endangered species of gazelles useless, said northern neighbor Richard Noble who runs the special animal farm. He shares one-half mile of land with the solar enterprise along his southern property line.

Carol Riggs, to the east, runs an agriculture business and she was concerned that drainage from the site would negatively impact her operation as she relies on sheetflow for water for her fields and a stock pond.

"The operation will be in my backyard," Riggs said. "Rainbow is a large ranch, so why pick that spot?"

She said she was not against harnessing the sun to create renewable energy, but she was not happy that it would be so close to her western property line.

Bonn told the commissioners that the plan is to retain water captured on-site and allow the continuity of the historical water flow. He also explained that the plans did move the photo-voltaic cell area 50 feet further to the west to create more space between the solar panels and neighboring properties. .

County Community Development Director Carlos De La Torre explained that the issue before the commissioners was a land use issue and that the drainage issue would be handled as part of the development process as staff reviews grading and drainage plans when submitted.

"No one can hold back the natural flow of water," De La Torre said. "The water collected on-site will be held back to slow the flow of rain water when the acreage is cleared. They can do whatever they want with the water on the property."

Bonn reassured the commissioners that he would ensure that Riggs did not lose any water for her agricultural activities.

(Shar Porier is a reporter at the Sierra Vista Herald/Bisbee Daily Review.)

Original Publication Date: January 18, 2012

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