CHRISTMAS VALLEY — When Gary Perkins heard that solar companies were buying nearby fields and planning to fill them with commercial solar arrays, the Christmas Valley alfalfa farmer snapped up two parcels in front of his log cabin.
He didn't want to see the sagebrush replaced by solar panels, he said.
"But there's a limit; I can't buy thousands of acres," Perkins said.
At least three companies have bought or are trying to lease more than 1,300 acres in the Christmas Valley area to take advantage of the sunny skies. The first row of solar panels is already in the ground, three other projects have been approved, and two more will be considered next month.
Solar company officials say the projects will bring tens of thousands of dollars of tax revenue to the area, and note that they are private property owners building projects allowed by the county.
But Perkins and dozens of others in Christmas Valley, an unincorporated community east of Fort Rock, have organized a group to oppose the developments. They're concerned about taxpayer money spent on solar projects and want Lake County to require the companies to put up money to ensure the sites are cleaned up if they're abandoned, like the state does. And with solar farms going in right next door to alfalfa fields and sage brush plains, some feel the solar farms don't mesh with the Western lifestyle in the High Desert.
"If you just look out here, at the thousands of acres of sage brush, there's lots of places where you could put this," Perkins said. "This is getting shoved down our throat."
At the same time, the state Department of Land Conservation and Development is considering whether future solar projects in the area will need to get an exemption from land use planning laws.
Projects proposed for the area include one by GreenWing Energy America Corp., which has applied to lease 640 acres of state land to install anywhere from 50 to 104 megawatts of power. A Washington dentist is developing a site northeast of town, and started construction this winter.
And Obsidian Finance Group has spent more than $541,000 to buy about 765 acres in the Christmas Valley area, according to Lake County assessor Phil Israel. The company has the county's conditional OK to site three solar arrays in the area, each of which will cost between $25 million and $28 million, and the county will consider two more next month. Additional permits would be required before construction, however.
Oregon land use laws say commercial energy projects on land zoned for agriculture can't be bigger than 20 acres, said Jon Jinings, community services specialist with the Department of Land Conservation and Development.
Most of the solar projects cover more than 20 acres.
Lake County determined that since the land wasn't commercially viable farmland, and a groundwater moratorium means no one could irrigate it, the rule didn't apply, said Ken Gerschler, planning director with Lake County.
The state is working to determine if that is the case.
"We're trying to figure out if we agree with that interpretation or not," Jinings said.
The decisions the county has already made will stand, Jinings said, because they have already been put in place. But if the state agency decides it doesn't agree with the Lake County's interpretation, it could advise the county that future solar applicants need to also apply for a land use exception a more complicated process than the conditional approval process.
Beyond land use questions, Christmas Valley residents are concerned about what will happen to the solar sites after a company is finished.
"At some point, panels wear out," said Marvin Morse, a real estate agent. "At some point they're going to be sitting out there, just sitting."
Several of the residents want a cleanup bond, or something that will guarantee that the panels will be removed, and the site restored, if the project shuts down.
But Gerschler, the county planner, said that the solar industry has made it clear that if the county decides to require a bond, the companies won't develop there. The county is, however, considering establishing a fee that companies would have to pay to help with any cleanup costs.
And Todd Gregory, assistant vice president with Obsidian, said that if solar panels become outdated, project owners will just switch them out. And he noted that if it was another business like a car dealership or a grocery store those facilities aren't required to have a cleanup bond.
However, for larger projects that Oregon's Energy Facility Siting Council permits, companies are required to have a bond or letter of credit to protect the local government and the state from having to pay to restore sites. And in the state's draft suggestions for counties considering renewable energy projects, a bond or some form of credit is recommended as well.
Crook and Jefferson counties are both in the process of adopting renewable energy ordinances to guide the siting of solar projects in Central Oregon.
Crook County is holding public meetings this month and hopes to have guidelines by April.
Jefferson County is holding a meeting at the end of March, and hopes to start talking about solar-related questions including where to site farms, and what to do about the 20-acre rule for farmland, said Wayne Pearson, Jefferson County economic development manager.
Sitting around Perkins' dining room table last week, several Christmas Valley residents expressed a slew of concerns many of which were echoed at a meeting of the Concerned Citizens of North Lake County later that evening.
It's a drastic and sudden change to the landscape and lifestyle, they said.
Perkins said that when he moved to the area 25 years ago, there was no telephone service and no paved roads to his property.
"You come out and you build the Western lifestyle," he said. "This is what we like."
And it's a shock, he said, to see one solar project after another going into place.
"You can take a little bit of change in a community, but not a lot. And not overnight," Perkins said.
But even beyond the impact to Christmas Valley, solar projects are using public funding, via state and federal tax credits, that residents are opposed to.
About half of the Obsidian project's financing will come from tax credits.
"Everyone in the U.S., everyone in Oregon, should be concerned about all this public money going into this," Morse said.
But Lake County is making efforts to encourage renewable energy development of all kinds, Gerschler said, to bring property taxes and jobs to the area.
Obsidian's projects could bring in between $50,000 and $100,000 a year in property taxes, after a three-year abatement period, Gregory noted.
And if they can get someone to buy the power and do enough financing, they hope to expand even further in the Christmas Valley area.
"We're hoping to do more in the future," Gregory said.