Quirks of the County Blog

Tuesday, Dec 25 2012 10:00 PM

LOIS HENRY: Here comes the sun. There goes the land.

BY LOIS HENRY Californian columnist lhenry@bakersfield.com

An interesting solar/ag easement caper came to my attention recently.

It created quite a dust up among about half a dozen local farmers who felt Kern County had pulled the rug out from under what might have been a $10 million deal for them.

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Lois Henry hosts Californian Radio every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM from 9 to 10 a.m. You can get your two cents in by calling 842-KERN.

And why should you care whether some fat cat farmers get even fatter, you're wondering?

Well, maybe you don't care so much about that one particular aspect of the deal (which I shall lay it out for you in a bit). But that deal brought up a larger issue of land ownership and control in Kern County.

Seems someone is trying to preserve land for something in practically every corner of our fair county.

And while no one wants to lose irreplaceable places, it does beg the questions of how much land should be preserved and for what?

First, the dust up.

About a nine months ago, SunPower Corp., which wants to build a solar facility on 4,000 acres of farmland in the Antelope Valley, was told by the Kern County Planning Department it needed to mitigate for that lost farmland, about 2,700 acres. That means it has to replace the land by protecting land elsewhere.

The farmland was also a known Swainson's hawk habitat, so SunPower had to find not only farmland, but farmland that was hawk friendly.

SunPower enlisted the aid of Sequoia Riverlands Trust, which makes a business of finding suitable mitigation lands, drawing up easements and then managing those easements.

An ag easement puts restrictions on land for a fee. In this case, farmers who sold an easement to SunPower would get paid to keep farming and Sequoia Riverlands Trust would get a cut to make sure everyone lived up to the easement.

SunPower paid several farmers here in the San Joaquin Valley option money and had easements ready to launch on 5,000 acres.

Everything was going just swell, the farmers thought. Until about a month ago when the county told SunPower to scrap the easements and fork over $14 million so the county could go get its own easements.

The farmers, then, were out all that anticipated money. Much angry grumbling ensued.

One working theory is that some very well-connected person pressured the county to switch the deal so he (or she) could sell a large piece of property to the county and pocket all that dough.

Other theories are the county wants shuffle the loot into the general fund.

Kern County Planning Director Lorelei Oviatt did tell me the county is more than likely going to buy one large single piece of property, or an easement on a large property, to mitigate for the SunPower farmland.

But she assured me the money will not be used to buy a fire truck or pay for road repairs. It is in a fund dedicated to project mitigation and that project is the SunPower project. It can't be used for anything else.

Other criticisms of the county's switch up are that governments don't have the expertise to search out, negotiate and hold such easements. That's exactly why groups like Sequoia Riverlands Trust evolved. Oviatt did acknowledge this is the first time Kern has ever attempted to buy such an easement. But she said the county has, in the past, negotiated land mitigation for the Metropolitan Bakersfield Habitat Conservation Plan, so she was confident it would all work out.

She felt bad if farmers had been promised the easement money. But she noted that SunPower had options on far more land than the county required, so someone was going to lose out once the county picked which easements were acceptable. Besides, she said, SunPower knew the county had to review the easements before closing escrow. And it had been notified that the county might initiate the cash payment mitigation measure.

"I know these folks are upset," Oviatt said. "And it's understandable. If I'd known SunPower had gone that far, I would have told them not to."

We shall see whether the "well-connected person" theory is accurate as any easement or property purchase will come before the Board of Supervisors.

In the meantime, Oviatt told me her main concern with the SunPower land mitigation was the overall conservation picture.

While SunPower was scampering around talking to farmers, another ag group had come to the Board of Supervisors in July concerned about a US Fish and Wildlife plan to buy properties or easements in the foothills. The Kern County Catttleman's Association told supervisors these easements can have a detrimental effect on property values and operations for neighboring farmers and ranchers.

Who do you complain to when easement restrictions possibly impede on your own land use and the easement owner is a middle man management company not even located in Kern, Oviatt asked?

The US Fish and Wildlife agency and the California Department of Fish and Game, for example, are "notorious" for managing the "fringes" of their wildlife preserves, Oviatt said.

"I started looking at maps and there's a need for conservation for this and mitigation for that," she said.

Already, groups like the Nature Conservancy own or control swaths 50 miles long and three miles wide linking the Tehachapis to Tejon Ranch.

"That's a good thing for species protection," she said. "But comments to the board were 'Wow, all of Kern County is going to be owned by someone else.'"

And then there was the High Speed Rail Authority that Oviatt said was down here "snooping around" for large blocks of land to preserve for endangered species impacts several counties to the north of Kern.

Aside from that being patently unfair, she wondered at what point is there no more "mitigation land" for local development because it's all owned or controlled by other entities for other conservation purposes.

"Say Paramount wants to build another Cuties plant and everything's locked up?"

She noted in Inyo County there are only about 30,000 acres left that aren't owned outright by the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, Los Angeles Department of Water and Power or aren't covered by some protective easement.

"Inyo provides a cautionary tale for us. Do we really want to be a drive-through wildlife preserve?" she asked. "In Kern County, we like jobs."

All of which led to the county demanding $14 million from SunPower and left a handful of farmers with a bad taste in their mouths.

Like I said, one small caper that opens an interesting bigger picture.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry, not The Bakersfield Californian. Her column appears Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or e-mail lhenry@bakersfield.com

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