Ag lands approved for solar farms

LIHU‘E — After a few deferrals and various amendments, a bill to regulate solar farms on agricultural lands passed a final vote Wednesday by the Kaua‘i County Council, although some council members wanted more time for scrutiny.

Bill 2424 complies with Act 217, signed last year by Gov. Neil Abercrombie. The act allows solar photovoltaic projects as a generally permitted use in ag districts and grants automatic approval for projects on ag lands rated from B to E, but projects on B and C lands can only occupy 20 acres or 10 percent of the land, whichever is less. Act 217, however, allows counties to impose additional restrictions.

“I find it very, very, very disappointing that the vote was taken while I was in the building, with staff, on the phone,” said Councilman Mel Rapozo, adding he was going to ask for a deferral because of the phone conversation he had with Kaua‘i Farm Bureau Executive Administrator Melissa McFerrin while the council was taking the vote.

Council Chair Jay Furfaro said he did ask for Rapozo’s location prior to the vote, but because he didn’t want any “ill feelings” on the council, he asked for a motion to reconsider.

With the item back on the table, Rapozo decided to not ask for a deferral and the bill passed by a 4-2 vote.

Rapozo and Councilman KipuKai Kuali‘i voted against the bill on the grounds that they didn’t feel the Kaua‘i Farm Bureau or Kaua‘i Island Utility Cooperative were properly represented in their testimony.

Kuali‘i said testimony from KIUC power supply manager Brad Rockwell is not on stationary with a KIUC letterhead, thus giving the appearance that Rockwell’s testimony is not endorsed by the KIUC Board of Directors.

On March 14, Rockwell testified at a council meeting, saying KIUC opposed to an amendment that had included extra layers of protection against solar projects on ag B lands. The co-op, he said, believed the amendment was unnecessary because there are tens of thousands of acres of B lands available for farming that are not in use, and for grid-stability and other reasons, development of solar projects on Kaua‘i will be limited to 100 to 120 acres.

“I think I would feel better if we would just give this a couple more weeks, and try to get something in writing from the Farm Bureau and something in writing from KIUC,” Kuali‘i said.

Rapozo said that as he spoke with McFerrin during the break, and she told him she wasn’t aware the bill had been amended once again to include B lands. He said he thinks that if McFerrin or the Farm Bureau knew B lands were put back into the bill they would have sent testimony.

Council Vice Chair JoAnn Yukimura said the staff on April 13 did send a copy of the final bill to the Farm Bureau, including an explanation of it.

She said the council first took out B lands from the bill, then put them back with a limit of 80 acres for all projects combined. But by limiting development to 80 acres, pre-approved projects could stall and prevent other potential projects to go forward, she said.

When council members saw all these problems, they came to a solution: By using natural limits, they would ensure less usage of B lands rather than if a previous version of the bill would have passed allowing up to 80 acres of B lands to be used, Yukimura said.

“I think we are achieving the best we can to strike this balance between protecting ag land and also facilitating solar facilities up to a certain point,” she said.

Furfaro said he wouldn’t change his original vote to approve the bill, as he had made his own phone call to the Farm Bureau.

Councilman Tim Bynum said the bill had been deferred at least twice in full council.

“The Farm Bureau had plenty of time and notice to come here with some kind of formal response,” Bynum said.

Councilwoman Nadine Nakamura had stepped out of the discussion earlier due to a possible conflict of interest.

The bill now has to be signed by the County Clerk and transmitted to Mayor Bernard Carvalho Jr., who may sign it or veto it. Carvalho has been in office for more than three years and has yet to veto a bill. A veto would send the bill back to the council, which would need a super majority to override the veto.

• Léo Azambuja, staff writer, can be reached at 245-3681 (ext. 252) or lazambuja@ thegardenisland.com.

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