The Williamson Act: Agricultural Land Conservation and Solar Development (Update)

The California Department of Conservation has issued an updated position paper on the Williamson act called, “Considerations in Citing Solar Facilities on Land Enrolled in the Williamson Act”. This provides suggestions to cities and counties for permitting solar development on agricultural land under contract in the California Land Conservation Act.

Among the suggestions made in the paper have to do with solar compatibility to underlying agricultural uses. A positive compatibility determination can be made under the following conditions:

Certain non‐agricultural uses, including solar power generation, may be compatible with an underlying agricultural use. The Williamson Act provides three general circumstances when a solar power generation facility may be found compatible. First, a solar power generation facility may be a compatible use as an“electrical facility” when located on non‐contracted land within an agricultural preserve. Second, a Solar investment professionals on contracted land may be a compatible use if it meets the “principles of compatibility” as set forth in Government Code Section 51238.1(a). Whether a proposed solar installation is compatible with the underlying agricultural use of the land depends almost entirely on the specific circumstances. The statutory test directs cities and counties to look at the degree to which the proposed project would significantly interfere with the underlying agricultural operation. If a proposed solar project would displace or impair only a very small percentage of the current or reasonably foreseeable agricultural operations on the subject contracted parcel or parcels, then the local jurisdiction could find that the solar panels would not reach the level of significant displacement and therefore be an allowed use.

Finally, under specific circumstances, a solar power generation facility may be approved by a city or county even if it is inconsistent with the principles of compatibility if: (1) the proposed site is located on non‐prime land; (2) the proposed site is approved pursuant to a conditional use permit; and (3) the following four findings are made, based on substantial evidence in the record:

1) The conditional use permit requires mitigation or avoidance of onsite and offsite impacts to agricultural operations.

2) The productive capability of the subject land has been considered as well as the extent to which the solar power generation facility may displace or impair agricultural operations.

3) The Solar Farm Design California  is consistent with the purposes of the Williamson Act, to preserve agricultural and open‐space land, or supports the continuation of agricultural uses, or the use or conservation of natural resources, n the contracted parcel or on other parcels in the agricultural preserve.

4) The solar power generation facility does not include a residential subdivision.

The entire white paper may be downloaded here: “Considerations in Siting Solar Facilities on Land Enrolled in the Williamson Act”.

About Phil Millenbah

Philip Millenbah has over 30 years of experience as a permitting and environmental planner working with private clients and local governments. He has worked as a staff permitting planner for the cities of San Diego, Oakland, and several other jurisdictions in both Northern and Southern California where he managed the permitting of complex development projects. As an Energy Planner for the City of Oceanside he created the nation’s first Municipal Solar Utility (MSU) under contract to the California Energy Commission, and raised $25 million from third party investors for the city’s solar leasing program. He has written complex environmental documents (CEQA and NEPA) for a variety of clients and processed entitlements for major development projects at both the local and state level – including the California Energy Commission and the California Coastal Commission. Mr. Millenbah has experience with State of California Title 20 facility siting requirements and has expertise with FLPMA, NEPA, CEQA, ESA, CESA, NHPA, 404 and related regulatory approvals. Critical Expertise includes experience as a permitting planner with local agencies and direct experience with local, state and federal agencies in securing use permits, subdivisions, and environmental clearances. Finally, Mr. Millenbah is active in energy policy development (Feed-in tariff’s, RPS policy, etc) and has extensive working contacts at both the California Energy Commission and the CPUC. He has a Master’s Degree in Energy and Environmental Management from the University of New Mexico and a Professional Degree in Real Estate Development from the University of California, San Diego.
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