Blinded by the Sun

Commission votes to restrict solar facilities on ag land.

By Catherine Cluett

Renewable energy and agriculture are two things many Molokai residents hope their island will become known for. But should you allow solar facilities to be built on land zoned for agriculture? 

Three weeks ago, Molokai residents had the chance to voice their opinions and weigh in on the Molokai Planning Commission’s (MoPC) decision about whether or not to support permitting of solar facilities of any size or use in agricultural districts. Residents’ feedback was mixed, and commissioners were left with a tough decision, which they deferred until last week’s meeting.

The state and county want people to be able to build solar facilities without a special permit, says Joe Alueta of the Maui County Planning Department. But members of the Molokai Planning Commission as well as some community members have reservations about giving blanket authorization without the MoPC’s approval of individual projects.

Currently, the County Code allows “small-scale” solar systems to be operated on land zoned for agriculture without a special permit. “Small-scale” means the energy system supports another principal, agricultural use established on the property. This includes “minor utility facilities,” or energy systems that may have a minor impact on adjacent land but are less than 23 kilovolts to run such utilities as wells, water distribution, or pumps. Alueta describes this as an accessory use, or facility whose sole purpose is to support another primary facility.

Lanai Sustainability Research LLC, a Castle and Cooke company, built a 10-acre photovoltaic facility on Lanai, and entered into an agreement last year with Maui Electric Company (MECO). Commissioners expressed concern that a similar facility could be built on Molokai’s agriculturally-zoned land without a special permit or review by the MoPC, a move that could impact the integrity of the land’s purpose.

The amendment proposed by the County would allow solar energy facilities of any size or use on agricultural land without special permit. Alueta explains this is both to make planners’ jobs easier and to uphold the state and county’s focus to make renewable energy a more accessible resource.

Members of the MoPC voted to accept the amendment with the stipulation that all non-accessory-use solar facilities still require a special permit. This includes all commercial use facilities whose sole purpose is to generate electricity. This type of regulation allows the MoPC to review projects on an individual basis and regulate facilities that could potentially affect the loss of agricultural land for food production, or permitted uses that could give developers an open door to build large-scale solar facilities on the island without regulation.

Alueta points out, however, that the MoPC’s decision is only a recommendation. After gathering similar feedback from the planning commissions of the islands of Maui and Lanai, the final verdict is up to members of the Maui County Council.

The next Molokai Planning Commission meeting will be held on March 11 at 10 a.m. at the Mitchell Pauole Center.

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