Klickitat County Commissioners on Tuesday held a discussion concerning the ongoing moratorium on solar development proposals subject to a conditional use process.

The moratorium essentially places a hold on conditional use applications for solar development project proposals sited outside the county’s Energy Overlay Zone.

Commissioners made opening remarks before entering a candid discussion on the direction the board wants to head regarding the moratorium. Commissioner Dan Christopher, in written comments presented to the board, cited county documents, such as the Energy Overlay Zone’s final environmental impact statement, as well as the commission’s findings of fact as it relates to the current moratorium, which he argued does not consistently address land risk controls of solar developments outside the energy overlay zone.

Christopher spoke in favor of the moratorium, arguing that current county ordinances do not establish consistent rules across energy development proposals. Christopher said he was concerned that without a moratorium, it could “adversely affect residents” by giving solar developers the opportunity to build “without adequate mitigation.”

He said he was in favor of adopting a “county-wide solar siting ordinance that corrects its zoning code as soon as possible.

“In addition, I feel that because of my findings of the lack of solar specific citing details and restrictions inside the EOZ itself, this board should also, at minimum, work on an amendment to the EOZ to cover solar siting requirements, decommissioning bond percentages, scrap percentages and create proper setbacks for non-participating properties, just like they did for windmills in 2010,” Christopher continued.

Board Chair Dave Sauter spoke next on the moratorium. In response to what he considered confusion on part of people testifying during the public hearing, Sauter clarified his position, saying he was in support of utility-scale renewable energy projects in the county – “I’ve never not had that position. It was much of our policy that we built towards renewables in Klickitat County,” he said, and he has considered and has supported that.

Sauter said his focus on the moratorium was limited to the conditional use process, and voiced his support for creating written guidance for the Board of Adjustment and the county planning department to use when deliberating conditional use applications.

Sauter said the Board of Adjustment, which ultimately makes determinations on conditional use applications, “have a lot of tools and controls and things available to them that are not necessarily very clearly defined and written down.”

The county benefits from the tax dollars spent generated by project developers, and the local economy benefits off of the lease agreements signed by landowners and project developers, Sauter said. When commissioners talk about creating new regulations, Sauter said there are already avenues for public input in the conditional use process. Sauter acknowledged that developers spend money on creating proposals, performing outreach and research on a potential project before submitting a public application, but he said that it is not subject to public input until an application is submitted.

“That said… I think we have lots of tools already, but we do need to memorialize them,” Sauter said.

It seems like a “no-brainer,” Sauter said, to disallow certain unpleasant hypothetical features of solar developments – “I don’t want poison brown water… I don’t want thousands acres of broken projects with fences around them” – but, he said, there already tools at the Board of Adjustment and at the county’s disposal to “make sure that doesn’t happen.” Sauter then voiced his concern to codify written guidance for the decision makers.

Sauter explained his thoughts on specific policy measures – including setbacks and decommissioning regulations.

Sauter said project developers often sign lease agreements with property owners, which have clauses certifying a developers’ responsibility to return the land back to its original form – “The question is about how do you make sure that happens.”

Sauter said he was in favor of extending the moratorium, “in so long as it takes staff to come up with some memorialized guidance as to… whatever things the board thinks it should get down in writing.”

Commissioner Jacob Anderson refuted the claims made by Christopher that the energy overlay zone does not adequately address solar developments specifically. Anderson made the argument that the energy overlay zone included the west end portion of the county, including Bingen. The code, Anderson said, takes into consideration other sources of power, “because we were thinking about wood-fired plants… In the EOZ it wasn’t just about wind,” Anderson said.

Anderson said the conditional use process is adequate for public input, making the argument that developers who propose a large-scale industrial solar project in the county would more than likely have to produce a site-specific environmental impact statement – “and Washington state has practically the strictest environmental standards in the U.S.”

Anderson said he does not believe there was an emergency in the county, which was written in the moratorium document agreed upon by commissioners last month, but said he would compromise with the other commissioners, in that more guidelines could be worked on by the board.

“An emergency would exist only if I didn’t have faith that the SEPA (State Environmental Policy Act) process would adequately protect the environment and the people,” Anderson said. “If I didn’t believe that was the case, than I would agree with you that an emergency does exist.”

County commissioners continued their discussion on whether drafting an ordinance specific to solar developments, a position which Christopher championed, was a move to push commissioners towards drafting rules that outline setbacks, decommissioning rules and other aspects of a solar development based on potential impacts in a given parcel or region of parcels. Anderson pushed back, saying “the thing that gets us in the end is the unintended consequences…when (developers) do an EIS, the neighbors who have issues can comment and respond to it. (Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife) will give comments, the tribe will give comments, everybody will give comments and they’ll respond to it.”

While each commissioners had certain diverging opinions on the direction forward, commissioners moved to build toward a consensus for further discussions in future meetings by directing staff to craft a draft guidance document that would encapsulate the discussions held on setbacks, decommissioning bond percentages, and other mitigating factors. Commissioners set a future discussion for next Tuesday, during their weekly commission meeting.