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Proposed American Canyon solar array (copy)

This simulation shows where the proposed commercial solar farm would go along American Canyon Road near Interstate 80 in southern Napa County. The area targeted for the solar array is in green.

A bid to create Napa County’s first commercial solar energy farm ended in a Planning Commission draw, with the tie-breaker to come next week.

County Commissioners Dave Whitmer and Andrew Mazotti on Wednesday voted for the project. Commissioners Anne Cottrell and Joelle Gallagher voted against it. The commission will try again on Dec. 5 when Commissioner Jeri Hansen should be present.

Renewable Properties President Aaron Halimi made the pitch for his company’s proposed 18-acre, 12,000-panel solar farm at 2180 American Canyon Road near American Canyon. He noted it would border Interstate 80 and wouldn’t be on prime farmland.

“This is the perfect project site,” Halimi said.

Renewable Properties will withdraw another application for a separate commercial solar energy farm in the rural Coombsville area near the city of Napa, he said. He didn’t want this more controversial proposal to interfere with the American Canyon project.

But the American Canyon proposal has also proven controversial. Critics want the county to craft commercial solar farm regulations before setting a precedent for other possible solar farms amid the county’s farmland.

“What is the rush to judgement on the proposal before you now?” Eve Kahn of Get a Grip on Growth wrote to the commission.

Cottrell agreed the commission needs more guidance than existing county rules provide, guidance that would have to come from the Board of Supervisors.

“There’s so much about this project I’m in support of,” Cottrell said. “I just think we need more regulations in place before going forward.”

Mazotti and Whitmer also supported having Napa County create commercial solar regulations, but still favored the American Canyon solar farm. The solar farm is to sell enough power for 1,000 homes to Marin Clean Energy, which serves Napa County.

“I think it’s a good project and I worry about the opportunity going away if we delay and wait for regulations to be in place,” Mazotti said.

The county allows in all zoning district various “public utility uses,” including electric generating plants. Project opponents questioned whether a private corporation such as Renewable Properties qualifies as a public utility.

“Just calling the project a public utility to shoehorn it into an allowable use subverts our county’s entire zoning plan,” resident Kathy Felch wrote to the county.

County staff reached a different conclusion. County Planning Manager Vincent Smith said the project would generate power for the public through Marin Clean Energy and this qualifies as a public utility use.

Cottrell didn’t disagree, but saw a flaw.

“I think just the fact we have so much discussion on this means it’s not so clear as it could be,” she said.

A public speaker told the commission that the American Canyon property is used to board horses and other animals, including her own horse. The point struck home for Gallagher.

“This is clearly being used for agriculture, and my inclination is to preserve agriculture,” Gallagher said.

Whitmer found reasons to support the project.

“I think as a county we need to take seriously the realities of climate change and our role in trying to help to deal with that issue on a local basis,” he said.

The Dec. 5 meeting should yield the commission’s decision. Deputy County Counsel Laura Anderson said after the meeting that the public testimony portion of the hearing is closed, with only continued commission deliberations and action to come.

The Planning Commission first discussed the American Canyon solar farm on Oct. 17, when all five commissioners were present. It postponed the matter because Solano County Airport Land Use Commission staff wanted Travis Air Force Base officials to review the project’s glare study.

Smith said the county as of Wednesday morning had received no comments on the project from Travis Air Force Base.

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Napa County Reporter

Barry Eberling covers Napa County government, transportation, the environment and general assignments. He has worked for the Napa Valley Register since fall 2014 and previously worked 27 years for the Daily Republic of Fairfield.