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Developer’s deals with community organizations under fire as giant solar farm moves closer to approval

As California seeks 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045, momentum is building behind renewable energy projects.

SAN DIEGO COUNTY, Calif. — The developer behind what would be San Diego County’s largest solar farm has struck deals with community organizations to give them money if the project wins approval -- a move aimed at building support from neighbors in Jacumba Hot Springs who fear the project would limit growth and ruin their town.

The project’s most vocal critics also have panned the developer’s cash deals, saying they will do little to help the town boost tourism and fulfill its need for a back-up power source. One community group has pushed to scale-down the more than 600 acre solar farm to roughly 300 acres. But the developer has refused that big of a reduction.

“I just think it's been a strategy to circumvent truly working with the community,” Jeffrey Osborne, one of the three new co-owners of the Jacumba Hot Springs Hotel, said of the deals, which total $325,000 so far. In one agreement obtained by inewsource, the community organization promised money from the developer had to agree to support the project and not oppose it. The developer has pitched the deals as a benefit to the community.

“A few hundred thousand dollars can't replace the future and hope of our community and the devastating effect this is going to have on everybody here for generations to come,” Osborne added.

Credit: Zoë Meyers
Jeffrey Osborne stands next to a pool that is undergoing renovations at the Jacumba Hot Springs Hotel, March 9, 2021.

The renewable energy arm of BayWa, a Germany-based company, wants to break ground on the solar farm early next year and have the farm up and running by early 2023. The project would lie east of Jacumba, starting just beyond the town, and sandwich historic Old Highway 80, which offers views of the desert, mountains and the U.S.-Mexico border a half-mile away.

Despite the residents’ pleas to drastically reduce the footprint of the solar farm, the project is moving forward rapidly. The San Diego County Planning Commission voted 5-2 on July 9 to recommend the Board of Supervisors approve the project at a meeting tentatively scheduled on Aug. 18.

Also driving momentum is a statewide push toward renewable energy. Public officials and utilities are under pressure to help California meet its goal of deriving 100% of its electricity from renewable and carbon-free resources by 2045 to limit climate change. County supervisors voted on Feb. 10 to approve measures to streamline renewable energy development in the backcountry, and six other wind or solar projects are in various planning and permitting phases within 17 miles of Jacumba.

Geoff Fallon, the BayWa r.e. executive vice president who has been leading the project since January, told inewsource he sees the deals as a way for the developer to add value to the community and be a good neighbor. The company could set aside more money for community donations, Fallon added, refusing to say how much more.

He said he’s tried to identify additional deals with Osborne and other local groups.

“I think that we've offered ideas and opportunities to meet with them, and everything that we've gotten in return is only about size and scale and not about what value can we bring to the town as a long-term partner,” he told inewsource.

So far, BayWa r.e. has signed an agreement with the Jacumba Community Services District to provide a one-time donation of $250,000 for improvements to the town’s park. The agreement requires the agency to agree not to oppose the project, including in the form of a lawsuit, and also write a letter of support for the developer if asked. The Services District provides water to about 250 residential and commercial customers in town in addition to owning the park.

The Imperial Valley Desert Museum in Ocotillo has also signed an agreement with BayWa r.e. in which the developer would provide $75,000 for an exhibit and general support.

Osborne said he is determined to keep fighting the developer and has hired a lawyer and environmental consultant.

“Just because they're green energy doesn't mean everything they're doing is okay,” he said about BayWa r.e. “They're hiding behind green energy and they're being bad developers and they're not considering our communities.”

A giant project with ‘unavoidable’ impacts

Residents seeking a scaled down solar farm and supporters, including the developer, disagree over how the land should be used.

Credit: Zoë Meyers
The valley and site of a proposed solar project is located next to the U.S.-Mexico border wall in Jacumba Hot Springs, March 9, 2021.

Fallon said the location has great potential for renewable energy, so the solar project is the best use of the site.

The now-fallow land, which had been a farm until 2012 and was once considered for housing, stretches from Interstate 8 to the U.S.-Mexico border. Totalling 1,356 acres, the site would also include a permanent switchyard, 90 megawatts in battery storage, open space and landscaping along a perimeter fence. The project’s approval would come with a plan to take down the panels after 35 years, although the developer could seek another permit to extend the project.

Credit: Courtesy of San Diego County
This image in a staff report to the San Diego County Planning Commission shows the size and elements of a proposed solar project in Jacumba Hot Springs that would stretch from Interstate 8 to the U.S.-Mexico border.

The International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers supports the project, and a union representative, Micah Mitrosky, spoke in favor of it at a June 17 town hall meeting in Jacumba with staff from the county and Supervisor Joel Anderson’s office, saying it would create jobs. Jason Anderson, president and CEO of CleanTech San Diego, told the Planning Commission in a letter the project is “an essential part of helping the region meet its economic and environmental goals.”

Meanwhile, residents in Jacumba, whose population is roughly 500 but was ten times that in its heyday almost a century ago when tourists flocked there for the hot springs, said the project will come at the cost of their way of life and strangle growth.

Among their concerns are the heat island effect the dark solar panels could create, the difficulty of landing a glider at the nearby Jacumba airport once it is bordered by the panels and the loss of beloved vistas.

And an environmental impact report found that the project would have “significant and unavoidable” impacts on the aesthetics of the landscape. It could also disrupt some animal and plant life including the tricolored blackbird, which is listed as threatened in California, and cultural resources such as historic buildings and archeological sites, though the developers are required to try to limit those impacts.

Residents also have noted they won’t get any power from the project, which is under contract to provide enough electricity to power about 57,000 homes in coastal San Diego County.

BayWa r.e. signed an agreement in May to sell the 90 megawatts of power from the solar panels to San Diego Community Power, which provides renewable electricity to the cities of Chula Vista, Encinitas, Imperial Beach, La Mesa and San Diego using San Diego Gas & Electric’s grid.

Credit: Zoë Meyers
Power transmission lines run through Jacumba Hot Springs, March 9, 2021.

At the July 9 Planning Commission meeting, Osborne, the hotel owner, noted the “irony” of San Diego Gas & Electric shutting off power to Jacumba in periods of high fire and wind risk.

“We’re going to be sitting there … with our power off and our fridges with food dying in it, looking at a field full of batteries and solar panels, sending … high voltage lines down to coastal communities that are not having their power cut off,” he said.

In May, the Jacumba Hot Springs Community Sponsor Group, a county advisory panel set up to give residents in unincorporated areas input on land use decisions, voted unanimously to oppose the project.

Instead, the group is pushing an alternative vision that would see the facility’s acreage cut in half. The vision also includes a wildlife and hiking corridor, space for possible residential or commercial growth and back-up power for the community.

But the developer told the Planning Commission that it can’t reduce the acreage further because it would produce too little energy to fulfill its contract.

The commissioners considered but ultimately refused a motion to deny the project, instead backing staff’s suggestion to approve it and increase the buffer between the solar panels and homes from 30 to 300 feet. That would only slightly reduce the facility’s size from 623 to 604 acres.

The Commission also directed the developer, BayWa r.e., to negotiate more benefits with the community. Commissioner David Pallinger, who made the motion, said the talks should move the project forward before it goes to the Board for approval and should be made in “really good faith.”

Cherry Diefenbach, the chair of the community advisory group, said Fallon, BayWa r.e.’s representative, approached her only a week before the Planning Commission meeting to ask for ideas for donations like those for the park improvements. She said the community is “not willing to negotiate a one-time something for a lifetime of impact.”

Credit: Zoë Meyers
Cherry Diefenbach points out the location of a proposed solar project in Jacumba Hot Springs, March 9, 2021.

“It's like putting lipstick on a pig,” Diefenbach said about the developer’s deals. “I don't think they have enough lipstick, quite frankly.”

Her group’s requests have been rebuffed so far.

Community organizations see deals as best bet 

The agreements between developers and community organizations, known as community benefits agreements, are common and ideally are used to build support for development projects while also ensuring that communities get something in return.

Developers of projects from offices to housing to sports stadiums have negotiated donations to community organizations, according to a Tulane University Public Law Center study.

As a key local agency, the Jacumba Community Services District -- one group that has inked a community benefit contract with BayWa r.e. -- has been notably absent from the local opposition to the project.

The contract requires the District not to oppose the project and to pen a letter in support for the project at the developer’s request.

Emilio Gonzalez, the general manager of the Jacumba Community Services District, told inewsource he understands the community opposes the project and isn’t telling residents to stop fighting. He said that the district and its board agreed to the donation because they felt that if the project went through, the community should get some benefits.

The $250,000 donation is contingent on the county’s approval of the full 90-megawatt project. The agreement requires the district to do its best to make the improvements to the park within a year of receiving the money.

The Imperial Valley Desert Museum Board of Directors signed the deal with BayWa r.e. last week, said David Breeckner, the executive director of the museum. BayWa r.e. will provide a $50,000 donation to set up a spherical display called the “OmniGlobe” as soon as fall 2022, as well as $25,000 for operational support over ten years.

His organization started negotiating a deal with Baywa r.e. only after the developer agreed to do an additional limited study of the site with ground-penetrating radar to ensure there would be no disruption to major archeological sites during construction and operation. Breeckner said he made the request because the technique was successfully used at the 58-acre EcoSubstation project, roughly three miles east of the proposed solar project, and unearthed a stone hearth dated back 10,000 years 21 feet underground.

“The purpose of the museum is always to identify and to work with living modern audiences to ensure that the past is not only made accessible, but cared for in a responsible way,” Breeckner said. “Sometimes it means unfortunately balancing it in a way that gives way to development projects like this, but in those cases, the museum plays an active role to ensure that every step of the way careful consideration is given to that legacy.”

He would not share a copy of the deal with inewsource but said it “ensures mutual support by both parties for one another, within the scope and benefits of the project.”

One example of a benefits package in the San Diego backcountry is that Iberdrola Renewables says it has committed more than $2.1 million to community organizations in health, education, cultural preservation and outdoor recreation as part of its development of Tule Wind, whose 57 wind turbines dot the ridges north of Jacumba.

A former board member for the Jacumba Community Services District, William Pape, said he has volunteered for years to help negotiate perks for Jacumba during the development of other nearby projects, including a transmission line by Sempra International and another smaller solar project by BayWa r.e.

Some of those benefits include the drilling of a well and the purchase and installation of air-conditioning and heating in the community center.

Pape, who moved to Arizona this year, said large-scale renewable energy projects are like other infrastructure in that people may not want to see them go up nearby but they’re necessary to help “civilization move along.”

“I just try to get what we can get out of these companies before they're gone,” Pape said.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story mischaracterized the reasons that drove the Imperial Valley Desert Museum to agree to negotiate a community benefits agreement with Baywa r.e. 

inewsource is a nonprofit, independently funded newsroom that produces impactful investigative and accountability journalism in San Diego County. Learn more at inewsource.org.

WATCH: Mary Plummer joins Morning Extra to talk about the story