Groups challenge Topaz Solar Farm in court

Lawsuit says the Topaz project on the Carrizo Plain will harm the ecosystem

dsneed@thetribunenews.comAugust 16, 2011 

Two local environmental groups are legally challenging the second commercial solar project on the Carrizo Plain.

In a lawsuit filed Friday in San Luis Obispo Superior Court, North County Watch and Carrizo Commons challenged the county’s July 12 approval of the 550-megawatt Topaz Solar Farm.

The primary contention of the suit is that the large photovoltaic facility will damage the Carrizo Plain ecosystem, a common theme throughout the county’s regulatory review of the project.

“At stake in this litigation is whether the natural assets of the Carrizo Plain, described by wildlife agencies and independent scientists as essential for the continued survival of the local subpopulations of certain rare or listed species, will be sacrificed for the sake of an experiment in industrial solar production,” the lawsuit said.

Susan Harvey, president of North County Watch, said the projects should be built in less ecologically sensitive areas. One option for this is retired farmland in Kern County.

The Topaz project, proposed by First Solar, would cover 1,253 acres at Highway 58 and Bitterwater Road with solar panels within a fenced enclosure of 5.5 square miles. Three months ago, the county also approved a separate 250-megawatt solar project, which is the subject of a similar lawsuit.

Alan Bernheimer, spokesman for First Solar, said the company is still reviewing the suit.

The project would affect one federally protected species, the San Joaquin kit fox, and the company will take steps to lessen the project’s effect on the animal, including installing fencing that the foxes can pass through, Bernheimer said.

Carrizo Plain resident Michael Strobridge, who filed a lawsuit against the other solar project, is still in settlement negotiations with the county and First Solar and has not yet filed his own lawsuit, Bernheimer said.

If built, the Topaz project will generate enough electricity to power approximately 160,000 homes.

The case has been assigned to Judge Jac Crawford. The first hearing is scheduled for Sept. 26.

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