If there is one thing that motivates many volunteer environmentalists to keep on plugging away, it is the outrage we feel when we bump into an atrocious scheme like this one:
Five years ago, Kern County took $14.3 million from a solar developer to help preserve farmland and the threatened Swainson’s hawk, and it has been trying to absorb these millions into its general fund without doing the mitigation. Let me explain.
The Antelope Valley Solar project was approved in 2012 — 4,600 acres of solar panels on farmland on the LA-Kern County line southwest of Rosamond in the desert. About 3,500 acres are in Kern County.
There is an important colony of threatened Swainson’s hawks in the area, hawks that have foraged on the alfalfa fields being covered now by solar panels. So as a mitigation measure, the county required the developer to preserve 2,700 acres of farmland that also was Swainson’s hawk foraging habitat — Swainson’s hawk foraging habitat loss and farmland loss mitigation in one fell swoop.
Kern County has been sitting on this $14.3 million since 2012 when they took the developer off the hook. The solar project has been built. The impact to the Swainson’s hawk and to farmland loss has occurred. The mitigation has not occurred.
Last year, in order to help with its budget problems, the county tried to absorb the $14.3 million into the general fund without actually doing the required mitigation. The county’s outrageous scheme was to pay themselves the $14.3 million to put conservation easements on some of its own lands. They were county properties that they were trying to push off as satisfying the mitigation conditions, supposedly being both prime farmland and Swainson’s hawk foraging habitat. These properties included three landfills and a sewage treatment facility, landfills certainly not prime farmland.
Local environmental organizations paid a Swainson’s hawk expert biologist, Pete Bloom, to come to Kern County to evaluate these proposed county properties as Swainson’s hawk foraging habitat. According to Bloom, the properties had very limited value for the Swainson’s hawk. We made a fuss, talked with some of the supervisors, and the county pulled back from this outrageous scheme to absorb the $14.3 million. They must have hoped we weren’t watching.
But Kern County still sits on the $14.3 million. It still hasn't done the mitigation that it required of the developer more than six years ago, mitigation that is critical to preserve this important and isolated colony of Swainson’s hawks in the desert.
Kern County is coming back with a new proposal on Tuesday, March 13, a proposal that will still let the county absorb $3 million of the $14.3 million into its general fund while using the rest for questionable mitigation in the central valley that doesn’t help the affected threatened Swainson’s hawk colony in the desert.
This sets a terrible precedent. If the county can just absorb developer mitigation money into the general fund for other uses, why can’t it:
-- Divert housing developers’ traffic impact fees into cutting budget deficits instead of helping to improve traffic conditions?
-- Use oil companies’ air pollution fees for funding day-to-day county operations rather than addressing our region’s terrible air quality?
Of course, the main reason that it shouldn’t absorb this mitigation money into the general fund is because it is unethical to do so. It is my hope that on Tuesday, Kern County supervisors will recognize this and use all of the $14.3 million for its intended purpose — to help preserve farmland and the important threatened colony of Swainson’s hawks in the desert.
Gordon Nipp of Bakersfield is vice chair of the local Sierra Club Chapter and is a retired mathematics professor.