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Requiring solar panels, O.C. supervisors OK environmental review for 340 hillside homes

Solar panels
An installer assembles solar panels on a Los Angeles home. A development project in the hills above Yorba Linda will require solar panels on the roofs of all 340 homes.
(File photo)

A lawsuit-plagued proposal to build 340 homes in the unincorporated hills above Yorba Linda will be among the first Orange County developments required by state law to install photovoltaic solar panels on every roof — if it ever escapes environmental complaints filed by neighbors.

The Orange County Board of Supervisors voted 3-2 Tuesday to approve an amended environmental impact report for the Esperanza Hills development, which it originally approved in 2015. Supervisor Don Wagner, whose district includes the project site, and Supervisor Doug Chafee cast the dissenting votes.

“What concerns me is we do not have the community’s buy-off, and the issues that they have raised are substantive and do deserve more attention that they have received,” Wagner said.

From its inception, Yorba Linda residents have complained that the proposal is unsafe in the event of a fire because it only includes one road for residents to evacuate, as well as a secondary access road for emergency personnel.

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Attorney Doug Wymore of developer Yorba Linda Estates LLC said the access concerns had already been resolved in court and that the supervisors only needed to comply with a legal decision.

The Court of Appeal ruled the county didn’t provide substantial evidence to support its claim that it was infeasible to unilaterally decide how many solar roof panels should be installed to offset the greenhouse gas emissions Esperanza Hills would create.

The California Energy Commission requires solar power for all homes built on or after Jan. 1, 2020. The county hired Ardebili Engineering to assess what kind of solar panel system would offset the energy required to power the proposed 4,500- to 6,500-square-foot homes in Esperanza Hills. In a letter, the engineering firm estimated it would take 15 300-watt solar panels to provide the 4.3-kilowatt system needed for each structure.

“Requiring the solar PV panels will save 6,226 total [kilowatt] hours of electricity annually, which is equivalent to 10,765 miles driven by an average passenger vehicle, or 4,813 pounds of coal burned,” the letter states.

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Diane Kanne, a research chemist and air emissions expert whose cul-de-sac adjoins the open space where Esperanza Hills would be built, said Ardebeli did not use the computer model developed by the California Air Pollution Control Officers Assn. to calculate the project’s potential greenhouse gas emissions.

“Sure, you have numbers in front of you but the math is wrong,” Kanne told the supervisors.

Wymore argued it’s impossible to precisely calculate the project’s greenhouse gases, as Kanne suggested.

“ ... Until you know exactly how big the houses are, and so on and so forth, it’s always going to be an estimate,” Wymore said. “If we truly had engineering issues, we would have an engineer that would be up here saying this was designed wrong.”

Attorney Kevin Johnson, who represents the Protect Our Hills and Homes neighborhood group, said supervisors Lisa Bartlett, Andrew Do and Michelle Steel have allowed the developer and its consultants to run the environmental review process for 4 1/2 years.

“It’s a classic example of a dysfunctional political body in terms of a majority shutting down a home district supervisor’s concerns about what does or doesn’t go in his district,” he said.

Do said the panel of judges sided with the county’s argument that it didn’t need to throw out all of its prior approvals.

Johnson argued Do is “totally wrong” with his characterization and that appellate court’s patience in this case is truly running thin.

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“Any supervisor that believes they weren’t chastised is engaging in wishful thinking,” he said.

The county is expected to seek Judge William Claster’s approval of the solar power plan within the next 45 to 60 days.

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