Jacumba residents fear 650-acre solar project will ruin their rural community

The small community of Jacumba Hot Springs in southeastern San Diego County may soon be eclipsed by nearly 650 acres of solar panels on the outskirts of town, but residents are fighting against the project.

The small community of Jacumba Hot Springs in southeastern San Diego County may soon be eclipsed by nearly 650 acres of solar panels on the outskirts of town, but residents are fighting against the project.

They fear its size and proximity will ruin their historic, rural community where around 500 people live. They also say that restrictions related to the pandemic, including public meetings held online and by phone and library closures, where residents can access computers and public records, have made it more difficult to stay informed and to protest against development.

Jacumba residents fear 650-acre solar project will ruin their rural community

Hear this story from Camille von Kaenel.

“I’m just afraid this one is showing its ugly head and that we, the community, haven’t had our say,” said Cherry Diefenbach, chair of the Jacumba community sponsorship group, which advises on county officials on land use issues. .

The county planning commission is tentatively set to review the solar project this summer, with the board of supervisors addressing it in the fall.

Cherry Diefenbach highlights the location of a proposed nearly 650-acre solar project bordering the Jacumba Hot Springs on March 9, 2021.

The 90 megawatt JVR power park would be developed by BayWa re, a company based in Munich, Germany. At this size, the project could provide renewable energy to around 22,500 homes each year, based on the conversion of a solar power group.

The proposed solar panels would fill approximately half of the site of the 1,356-acre development, which stretches from Interstate 8 to the Mexican border, and would include a switching station, substation, open space and landscaping. along the perimeter fence.

The land adjoins Jacumba to the east and has been used for the past decade as a vegetable farm and sand mine. It was once considered accommodation.

Jacari “Jay” Cousins, owner of Jay’s Southern Cafe in Jacumba, said he joined the local planning council led by Diefenbach just to oppose solar development. The board voted unanimously on Tuesday night to ask the county and the developer to limit the project to 200 acres or less and keep it 1,500 feet from roads or homes.

Jacari
Jacari “Jay” Cousins ​​is shown outside her restaurant in Jacumba Hot Springs on March 9, 2021.

Cousins, who is also the pastor of the Ambassador’s Worship Center in El Cajon, moved his family to Jacumba Hot Springs six years ago in search of a quieter life. He said he liked that his children could play on the streets and that he knew everyone in town. He also likes to spot deer, rams, owls and other wildlife in the area.

The big solar project just doesn’t fit in, he said.

“If it’s placed there, it will become an eyesore,” Cousins ​​said.

“People won’t want to come and see this place. “

He also fears it will drive down property values ​​and hurt businesses like his restaurant once the 500 workers expected during the 13-month construction period are gone.

Residents fear damage to landscapes and historic resources Many residents of Jacumba do not want to participate in the project and 74 have signed a petition sent to the county to oppose it.

After county officials released a 1,244-page draft environmental report on the project in October, they received around 100 postcards, handwritten letters and emails from opposition residents. Most came from the inhabitants of Jacumba, but some came from the neighboring boulevard.

The project’s goals, according to the report, include helping meet the state’s renewable energy targets; to provide reliable power to the San Diego County area; and maximize productivity by placing a project in an area with excellent solar attributes.

The southern end of a proposed solar project site is next to the US-Mexico border wall near Jacumba Hot Springs on March 9, 2021.
The southern end of a proposed solar project site is next to the US-Mexico border wall near Jacumba Hot Springs on March 9, 2021.

The buyer of the electricity is still unknown, and BayWa re declined to be interviewed for this story. The panels would be removed after 35 years.

The report also lists the possible impacts of the project. One is that it could disrupt tribal cultural resources, including archaeological finds from at least 10,000 years of human occupation and sacred sites. Kumeyaay monitors have already overseen the initial investigations. Four local tribal governments consult with the county before it decides whether or not to approve permits.

The solar project could also disrupt bird habitat, including the burrowing owl, increase fire risk, and create noise and glare.

“It’s really going to create an industrial feel to this valley it’s in,” said Jeffrey Osborne, who, along with two other partners, purchased the Jacumba Hot Springs Resort and Spa in October. “Overall, it kind of destroys any future here for this community.”

Jeffrey Osborne works on design plans with his co-owners at Jacumba Hot Springs Resort and Spa, March 9, 2021
Jeffrey Osborne works on design plans with his co-owners at Jacumba Hot Springs Resort and Spa, March 9, 2021

The purchase of the historic hotel includes approximately 150 acres of land and other commercial buildings. The owners have said they want to restore and showcase historic structures, including a burnt-out public bathhouse in the center of town that they have already started cleaning up.

Osborne said he almost gave up on the purchase when he heard about the solar project, but decided to stay and fight it. The owners hired an attorney specializing in California land use and environmental law to help them.

COVID-19 makes public participation more difficult

Diefenbach, president of Jacumba’s sponsorship group, is a local historian and author who restores the “Chinese Castle,” a distinctive 1930s house she purchased in 2012. It overlooks Jacumba, including the site of the proposed solar panels .

She said fewer people than she might have imagined attending the planning group meetings, which are taking place through Zoom due to the pandemic.

This image in a draft environmental impact report on the proposed Jacumba Valley Ranch Energy Park shows the size of the solar project that would stretch from Interstate 8 to the Mexican border.
This image in a draft environmental impact report on the proposed Jacumba Valley Ranch Energy Park shows the size of the solar project that would stretch from Interstate 8 to the Mexican border.

An October meeting of county planners organized for the community to review the solar project’s environmental impact report also took place online and by phone. The county does not record these kinds of public review meetings and only takes written comments to ensure accuracy, a county spokesperson said.

The report was filed at the Jacumba library but access was limited due to COVID-19, and sometimes county libraries were closed except for ‘door service’ during health closures.

The restrictions amounted to “depriving people of their civil rights,” Diefenbach said.

The local planning group has supported renewable energy projects in the past, including a redeveloped 108-acre BayWa solar farm east of Jacumba along former Highway 80.

Power lines cross Jacumba hot springs on March 9, 2021.
Power lines cross Jacumba hot springs on March 9, 2021.

It was connected at the end of 2017 and supplies power to Southern California Edison. The solar farm is located next to the border wall between the United States and Mexico and is not easily visible from the old highway 80 or the city.

But BayWa re’s latest project is different, said Diefenbach, who wants to see the size downsized.

“I think this will set a very dangerous precedent for doing this to other communities,” she said.

The southeastern part of the county has seen a surge in renewable energy projects. California has set a goal of getting 100% of electricity from renewable, carbon-free resources by 2045.

Six other wind or solar projects are in various stages of planning and authorization within a 17 mile radius of Jacumba Hot Springs. These include a project to install 60 wind turbines on the Indian reserve of Campo and another for the construction of a solar project at Boulevard.

About Keneth T. Graves

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