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Neighbors organize to halt Hesperus solar installation

Company plans estimated 500,000 panels in southwest La Plata County, but residents worry about environmental impacts
Area residents have formed a coalition against a massive solar project that could blanket the land behind them for miles. Pictured on Friday at Barry Spears’ residence east of Breen are from left, Pam Petrie, Kevin Ireland, Barry Spear, Trapper Niccum, Helen Aspaas, Wayne Ackman, Bethany Niccum, Holly Hagan, Jenna Settles, Samantha and Hudson Grigg with their son Ripton, 2. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

An ad hoc group of concerned La Plata County residents have organized themselves in opposition to the proposed Hesperus Solar Project, for which Primergy Solar submitted an application on Nov. 4.

The STOP Hesperus Solar group consists of roughly 30 members with an organizing core of seven or eight people. Their goal? Prevent the construction of the 1,900-acre project.

“We are not opposed to solar or renewable energies at all, because that is the way we’re going, that’s the way of the future,” said Pam Petri, one of the group’s organizers. “But what we are opposed to is an industrial solar facility on agricultural land.”

The group’s members are neighbors to the project, although not all of them own property that is directly adjacent to the proposed site.

The organizers have outlined 13 concerns related to the project. The objections, which were written before the submission of Primergy’s application, range from issues inherent to the construction of a large-scale solar installation, to others that seem more directed at Primergy’s perceived lack of transparency.

After Primergy held an initial meeting last month to introduce the project to its nearest neighbors, many felt the proposal was too opaque. The company promised details would come when it filed the application. Still, the group’s leaders are wary.

“They should find elsewhere,” said Jenne Settles, another of the group’s organizers.

Several of the group’s concerns are environmental. Much of the proposed site sits on land Colorado Parks and Wildlife has categorized as winter range for elk, and the group is concerned of the effect 1,900 acres of solar panels might have on the resident population.

Primergy said it consulted with CPW in the process of revising its proposal and will include a 1,000-foot-wide wildlife corridor that bisects the project to mitigate the effects on the elk. It also eliminated all dead-end pathways as a result of CPW’s recommendations.

The group also expressed fear that water runoff from the property could grow in volume and negatively impact well-water quality in the surrounding area. That, along with many others, appears to boil down to a basic lack of trust between the two parties.

Primergy has assured residents that runoff will be minimal and the company will “avoid pollution of water, air and soil by using appropriate best management practices and permits, which will be established prior to construction.”

However organizers of STOP Hesperus Solar remain wary.

A 1,900-acre proposed solar project would cover the mesa on the north side of Wildcat Canyon Road (County Road 141). (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald)

“Primergy, a for-profit private company out of California, has no ties to La Plata County except through this project,” said the group’s leadership committee in an email to The Durango Herald. “... This massive project, whose 500,000 panels will cover more acres than the surface of 1,490-acre Lake Nighthorse, will forever change the environment. It’s not a matter of lack of ‘trust,’ but a matter of proper stewardship of one of the most pristine areas of La Plata County.”

Much of their suspicion stems from what they view as partial truths told by Primergy’s representatives, such as the much-touted fact that the project would create 250 jobs. At the community event last month, project director Kathryn Meyer said the company would try to prioritize hiring locally but that it can be difficult to find qualified employees.

“We just doubt that,” Petri said.

The group’s website says, “job listings have already been posted online on a national level by a digital recruitment company for applications out of South Dakota.”

Its representatives reference a LinkedIn job posting for “solar installer” in Hesperus by a South Dakota-based firm named GPAC.

In an email statement, Meyer denied any connection between GPAC and Primergy.

“Primergy is not associated with GPAC nor any construction hiring agency,” Meyer wrote the week the permit was filed. “It would be premature to hire for construction of a project for which a permit has not been approved, nor submitted.”

Primergy has also doubled down on the point that the project would provide enough power for 56,000 homes – nearly double the number in La Plata County. But without a confirmed buyer for the power, it remains unclear where those 56,000 homes to receive the power would be located.

“The statement (that the project would be) ‘an investment in the sustainable future of La Plata County’ – it’s misleading and we feel most of the material that they’ve provided has been misleading or not transparent, which is very concerning for us as residents,” Settles said.

Hillary Knox, a spokeswoman for La Plata Electric Association, the area electric distribution cooperative, confirmed LPEA has no plans to purchase power from Primergy. Knox said such a relationship was not out of the question, but that no discussions have taken place regarding a potential agreement to purchase power.

The organizers of the movement to halt the development insist they are not anti-solar – several of them have their own rooftop solar installations and one proudly noted that he drives an electric car. But they are concerned the negative impacts of the project will be foisted upon La Plata County residents who will not enjoy the benefits of their sacrifice.

“I too have a solar system on my barn rooftop,” Petri said. “To me that's responsible. It's a small little piece I'm contributing to LPEA, I’m contributing here locally. I live here. I work here. I play here. This is my backyard. And the benefits from this project are not going to be here in our backyard.”

The group will host a public community meeting at 6:30 p.m. Tuesday at the Breen Community Building.

rschafir@durangoherald.com

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