The fight between the developer of what is slated to become San Diego County’s largest solar farm and neighbors in Jacumba who fear the project will strangle their town is heading to court.

In a lawsuit against the San Diego County Board of Supervisors and the developer of the 604-acre solar project, the owner of the Jacumba Hot Springs Hotel and a group of community members claim the solar farm’s approval violated environmental and zoning laws. 

Why this matters

Residents in Jacumba Hot Springs have failed so far to convince county leaders and a developer  to shrink a more than 600-acre solar farm slated to be built right next to their town of about 540 people. The fight over the solar project, which will be San Diego County’s largest, underscores how the interests of backcountry residents are sometimes at odds with those of public officials aiming to comply with California’s mandate of having 100% zero-carbon electricity by 2045.

They are asking a judge to declare that the Board of Supervisors’ unanimous approval of the project in August violated the laws. They are also requesting the court pause the project “until the Board has taken all actions necessary” to ensure its vote and the project comply with those laws. The suit was filed Monday in San Diego Superior Court.

“We just feel like they completely ignored us,” Jeffrey Osborne, one of the three owners of the Jacumba Hot Springs Hotel seeking to turn the town of roughly 540 residents into a bigger tourist destination, told inewsource Monday. “There’s literally not one consideration in this project by the developer of this town, and so our only option at this point is to hope the courts do the right thing and defend our rights.”

The developer, the renewable energy arm of a Germany-based company called BayWa, has agreed to provide $4 million in community benefits, such as improvements to a park and a museum exhibit in Ocotillo, to temper opposition. But it has refused the demands of some residents, including Osborne, to halve the project’s footprint.

Political momentum is behind large renewable energy projects, with public officials and utilities under pressure to help California meet its goal of deriving 100% of its electricity from renewable and carbon-free resources by 2045. The Board of Supervisors voted earlier this year to streamline local permitting for renewable energy.

 The panels in the Jacumba project are expected to power about 57,000 homes. 

Before voting to approve the project in August, Chairman Nathan Fletcher said “our planet is on fire and we cannot continue to delay action to tackle climate change.”

The solar panels would start roughly 400 feet east from homes in Jacumba, and sandwich historic Old Highway 80, which offers views of the desert, mountains and the U.S.-Mexico border a half-mile away.

Some residents oppose the solar project because they say it will lead to a loss of vistas that drive tourism, disrupt animal and plant life, cause a heat island effect from the dark solar panels and make it difficult to land a glider at the nearby Jacumba airport.

BayWa r.e. wants to break ground on the solar farm early next year and have it up and running by early 2023.

Spokespeople for BayWa r.e. and the county said they do not comment on pending litigation.

Jacumba joins trend of court challenges

The lawsuit filed Monday claims the Board of Supervisors’ approval violates the California Environmental Quality Act, a law meant to inform the public of the environmental impacts of a project and reduce them to the extent feasible. The law is often used by opponents of development projects to try to stall or block them. 

In the case of the Jacumba project, the lawsuit claims the county did not adequately study the long-term impacts of the solar farm on the town, saying the county “sidestepped” permitting rules when officials declared the project “interim.” While the developer has said it has a plan to take the solar panels down after 35 years, a requirement of its current permit, it could seek another permit to extend the use of the site, an outcome critics of the project say is highly likely.

The lawsuit also claims that a smaller project footprint could produce enough power to meet the developer’s contract with San Diego Community Power for 90 megawatts of renewable energy and that the county did not research that option enough. In response to a report from an engineering firm hired by Osborne suggesting a smaller project could produce the same power, a lawyer for BayWa r.e. told the Board of Supervisors that the calculation was wrong and the report did not include a project design. 

The lawsuit also claims the county did not fully account for the project’s impacts on wildlife, including the tricolored blackbird, and on tribal cultural resources. The Manzanita Band of the Kumeyaay Nation objected to the project in an August letter to the county, saying the valley slated for the solar panels was a village area that included ceremonial sites and trails and claiming the county had not engaged in meaningful government-to-government consultation.

The Berkeley-based law firm behind the suit, led by Stephan C. Volker, has a long history of environmental lawsuits across California and the country. It currently represents backcountry residents near Boulevard in two ongoing lawsuits against a project developing 60 wind turbines on the Campo Indian Reservation. The same law firm represented the residents in a lawsuit against the Tule Wind project in 2013, ultimately failing to stop the project. 

In addition to the Jacumba solar farm and the Campo wind turbines, five other wind or solar projects are in various planning and permitting phases within 17 miles of Jacumba Hot Springs. 

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Type of Content

News: Based on facts, either observed and verified directly by the reporter, or reported and verified from knowledgeable sources.

Camille von Kaenel is an investigative reporter at inewsource focused on growth and development in San Diego County’s backcountry. Her position is partly funded by Report for America, a national program that supports local journalists, and she's passionate about community service. Born in...