Farming the sun: 40-acre solar array proposed near Gypsum
GYPSUM — High-priced private property and a preponderance of federal lands characterize Eagle County, and those factors have kept solar farming from gaining much of a local toehold.
That may change later this month when the Eagle County commissioners consider a 40-acre solar array proposed by Gypsum Solar LLC, an indirect subsidiary of Breckenridge-based Cypress Creek Renewables. The site for the proposed solar farm is south of the Eagle County Regional Airport and west of the Buckhorn Valley neighborhood. The array would feature rows of photovoltaic cell panels mounted on posts set in the ground at a maximum height of 12 feet.
The commissioners will consider the application during a public hearing slated Tuesday, March 19.
According to Michelle Zimmerman, representative of Gypsum Solar, the company scoured Eagle County for a suitable location for a large solar array. The criteria included finding ground that was generally flat, offered southern exposure and was affordable enough to make the project work. While Gypsum Solar is proposing the array on 40 acres, the company will actually purchase 92 acres from property owner Merv Lapin.
“We went up and down the valley looking for somewhere and this is where we ended up,” Zimmerman said.
“No site is perfect,” Zimmerman continued. “We will have to fence it and that takes it out of forage for wildlife. We also try not to be this close to residential neighbors.”
Wildlife and neighborhood proximity are two of the major concerns identified for the proposed solar farm.
“We feel they are trying to fit it into an area that’s not that perfect for it,” neighbor Lisa Wells said.
Wells noted that residential properties border three sides of the proposed solar array. She believes the project would result in numerous impacts including dust and erosion issues, the destruction of hundreds of native juniper trees and visual impacts.
“We are concerned about our property values because this is such an industrial-type use that is going in,” Wells said.
Zimmerman said Gypsum Solar is committed to extensive mitigation at the site to minimize its impacts. She noted there will be no retaining walls built as part of the plan and any site work will result in a less than 10 percent slope in the disturbed area. The plan includes landscaping to partially screen the array from neighboring properties and Gypsum Solar has worked with neighbors to place the visual buffer in the most effective locations. In some areas, that means trees will be planted along private property lines.
Zimmerman added that while native trees will be removed to build the array, the company plans to mulch the trees and spread the material around the disturbed area.
Additionally, Zimmerman noted that only 40 acres of the 92-acre site will be needed for the array. She said the plan is to place the remainder of the property in a conservation easement to preclude future development. However, other development in the area is already unlikely, with no water rights associated with the land or utilities extended to the site.
While human use of the 92 acres is limited, the proposed solar array is wildlife habitat. Wells noted project neighbors are concerned about what the array will mean for deer and elk.
Colorado Parks and Wildlife area wildlife manager Perry Will’s comments regarding the proposal noted that establishing a conservation easement on the remaining 50 acres of the property would be an optimal mitigation measure.
“The conservation easement could be utilized for a variety of purposes, but the priority management of the easement would need to be for wildlife habitat and movement corridors to make this effective mitigation,” reads Will’s written statement. “The specifics of management might include seasonal closures to all human activity, to restricted access through the property to developed trails systems, to ensuring that there is no net loss of wildlife forage availability on the property.”
Will also advocated for some type of wildlife escape mechanism in the fenced part of the array. “While the fence should prevent wildlife from entering, there always seems to be a situation which allows animals access then they become trapped.”
Zimmerman said the company has reached out to neighbors, wildlife officials, town of Gypsum representatives and other interested parties to discuss the proposal prior to the March 19 hearing. In response, Wells said residential neighbors have asked that the size of the array be reduced to lessen the impact. Failing that, Wells suggested the company find a site that isn’t located so close to homes.
“They say it is not cost effective for them to make it smaller or move some of the units,” Wells said.
“We are doing as much as we can to understand the comments and get to the underlying concerns,” Zimmerman said. “This really is an innocuous use. There will be no noise, light pollution or traffic associated with this project.”
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It’s fitting that Eagle County is proceeding through its reopening phases of COVID-19 in an analogy to ski run difficulties — green to blue to black. Monday marks the transition from the green beginner phase to the blue intermediate phase.