La Casa Solar Project
Last updated 8/3/2020 at 12:57pm
An application for an Administrative Permit by La Casa Del Zorro Desert Resort and Spa to build a $2.5 million Solar project is currently winding its way through rigorous scrutiny by San Diego County’s Planning and Development Services (PDS) to decide if a California Environmental Quality Act public review is required, or if the Director will give the project approval to move forward to the Board of Supervisors.
According to Rebecca Falk, Chair of the Borrego Springs Community Sponsor Group, “It will be April of 2021 before a decision is made by County planners.” PDS Deputy Director Mark Slovic advised that the Environmental Review will possibly be completed by the end of 2020, at which time the Sponsor Group will be consulted and meet to discuss.
The off-site Solar project is on 6.5-acres of property purchased by La Casa, directly west of the Resort’s entrance. It includes 2,322 395-watt panels, six 125-watt inverters, and related electrical equipment. The site is bordered by Yaqui Pass Road, Borrego Springs Road and Deep Well Trail. The entrance to the Solar array will be a gravel road off Deep Well Trail. All electrical connections to La Casa will be underground, and the panels themselves will only cover 4.5 acres of the site. A six-foot, chain-link fence with beige panels will enclose the Solar array, and a 50-foot space between the roads and the Solar installation is planned to be enhanced with landscaping.
The Borrego Sponsor Group will be awaiting notice next year on the County’s decision whether the public will have an opportunity to respond to a number of environmental issues which include: ”Completeness and adequacy of the project description, compatibility of the project design with the character of the local community, consistency with the community plan and applicable zoning, and specific concerns regarding the environmental effects of the project (e.g., traffic congestion, loss of biological resources, noise, water quality, depletion of water resources),” according to Falk.
The Sponsor Group has held a number of meetings, where Borregans, including the American Legion Post #853, with a direct view of the Solar installation from its location directly across the street at the southwest corner of the proposed site, voiced opposition. The concerns from the community include, glare, noise, traffic hazards, neighboring homes’ view shed encroachment, degradation of neighbor character, as well as biological and cultural concerns.
The developers maintain they have submitted technical reports covering many of these issues and are continuing to work with the County.
According to Jack McGrory, one of the owners of La Casa, the Resort needs to improve its financial viability.
“By converting to Solar, the resort will see a savings on an annual electrical bill of $500,000. Besides, being cost effective, it’s the right thing to do. We’re doing what governments are asking us to do, cleaning up the environment and lessening our dependency on fossil fuel by converting to solar,” he said.
The project for the Solar array first came to the Sponsor Group in January 2020. Currently, a final vote by the Sponsor Group is on hold until sometime in the future when the County notifies them of the Planning Department’s decision. An administrative permit usually assumes there will be little or no impact, either on the community or the environment, and a finding by the Director of Planning is adequate. Approval appears on the Board of Supervisors’ Administrative Agenda for an automatic “yes” vote on all items listed, unless a supervisor pulls an item for discussion. Discussion is limited to the Board and no public comment is allowed.
In April, the Sponsor Group voted unanimously to continue the official vote with the caveat that while everyone, “appreciated La Casa and all it does for the community and praised the resort’s transition to Solar, they believed another site would serve everyone better.” They respectfully requested La Casa report back with an alternative to the proposed location.
At that meeting, a number of people in attendance testified against the project location. Although all applauded La Casa for moving to Solar without exception, they cited numerous harmful impacts on the neighborhood and upon traffic safety. Opposition was mainly from residents, owning homes within view of the Solar array. Many noted that the resort owns approximately 42 acres on which the Solar panels could be placed without creating traffic problems or impacting the environment or neighborhood.
Jens Neelsen, Senior Managing Director CWC Asset Advisors, Inc., managing partner of La Casa, expressed disappointment in the process. He stated that delays were costing the resort money.
“When La Casa loses money, the community loses money,” he noted.
Expressing his pride in the resort as Borrego’s largest employer, he added, “La Casa has always gone the extra mile to accommodate the community, and is Borrego’s largest contributor of Transient Occupancy Tax funds (TOT), averaging $300,000 yearly.”
“Obviously, we will be doing everything to landscape and make the Solar panels practically invisible.”
Water needed for construction is approximately 15,000 gallons during construction, and a half gallon per module per washing, which may be limited to only one washing a year. This statement by project planner and consultant Mark Linman conditioned the claim, adding, “Cleaning would depend on conditions.”
“The resort had two options: hooking into the Borrego Water District, (which sells potable, or drinking water); or connecting to the non-potable well on La Casa’s property, which is currently used for landscaping,” McGrory said.
In May, responding to the request to study alternative sites, the consultant for the project returned with a report covering four alternatives that included, roof top, parking lot and two other vacant parcels owned by La Casa that are planned for future expansion. The report concluded there was no other site financially or otherwise viable.
Linda Haddock, former executive director of the Borrego Springs Chamber of Commerce, questioned whether additional costs of $250,000 – $350,000 to use alternative vacant land was worth losing the goodwill of the community.
“I love La Casa, they are a great community asset.” She additionally expressed understanding for the Resort’s dilemma, stating, “They do need to expand and they do need to convert to Solar, but there has to be a better solution than the Deep Well island in the middle of a gateway intersection into Borrego that will irreversibly degrade the view shed for a number of La Casa’s neighbors.”
Falk recounted that all the members of the Sponsor Group were disappointed with the report and decision by La Casa to move forward with the proposed site. Members of the community, likewise, expressed dismay with the decision not to consider an alternative location.
Since the county’s project planner acknowledged that the project “has the potential to adversely affect visual resources,” the Sponsor Group was hoping for a visual rendition of what the completed site would look like, rather than pictures of the vacant land and adjacent roads.
“It would be helpful to actually see how the panels, fencing and landscape come together,” Falk noted.
Kitty Vandenburg, who has sunk family retirement funds into their home on Zuni Trail in the Deep Well neighborhood, opined the photos provided by the developers were misleading and cropped to show that the site was, “Just a piece of desolate dirt with nothing around it but ramshackle homesteads and scrub brush.”
“Site photo number four just blurs out and floats over our home and the adjacent three lots bought to protect our view,” she said.
Fred and Janie Kimball of Zuni Trail commented on their disappointment that the alternatives brought back to the Sponsor Group by the developers was exactly the same plan that was unanimously rejected previously.
“Nowhere in the ‘revised’ proposal does it address any of the previous concerns of Deep Well residents, community members, and the sponsor group committee. Items such as traffic sight lines, glare from the Solar panels, concerns of what this looks like as one of the gateways to our community, or the impacts to the neighbors of the Deep Well community.”
Fred Kimball wondered, ”What would the Resort have to say if another entity owned the proposed site and wanted to build the project on their front door? Our guess is, they would certainly want to have some input into its appearance. Perhaps, it would be OK because the six-foot cyclone fence would be beige colored.”
In a letter to Regina Ochoa, county planner overseeing the proposed project, Richard Dobbins, Commander of the American Legion, wrote, “On behalf of the Borrego Springs American Legion Post 853, I wanted to let the San Diego County Project Planner know how much we are against having Casa Del Zorro build a Solar farm in the triangle lot on the corner of Borrego Springs Road and Yaqui Pass Road.
“The Solar Farm end use creates, in our opinion, a traffic hazard from the possible sunlight reflection, visual roadway obstructions and distracted driving problems. We’re not against a Solar farm, just where they intended to place it.”
At the June meeting, the Sponsor Group voted not to hold meetings in July and August, with the possibility of a Sept. 2 meeting.
The members also decided to withhold a final vote on the proposed project until the traffic study and other related CEQA-environmental studies, required by the County, are completed.