Clackamas County Approves 10-Acre Solar Farm at Existing Tree Farm on South Spangler Road

A 10-acre photovoltaic solar power generation facility — more commonly known as a “solar farm” or “solar park” — has been approved on South Spangler Road between Canby and Oregon City.

The farm, operated by Buckner Creek Solar LLC, will consist of photovoltaic modules supported by stationary piles drive 6 to 10 feet into the ground. The panels will be strung together from east to west and will face south at an approximately 25 degree tilt, and will also include perimeter fencing, overhead poles and lines, and internal access roads.

The facility will be unmanned, with only occasional visits to the site by maintenance personnel. As county planner Clay Glasgow explained at the hearing back in March, the county has seen a number of these projects at this point, and they tend to be low-maintenance facilities, with little impact on neighboring uses or residents.

The property, located on Spangler between Highway 213 and South Beatie Road, is a 44-acre parcel zoned for agriculture and forestry use. It currently features a single-family residence and a Christmas tree farm.

“Commercial utility facilities for the purpose of generating power” are allowed as a conditional use in this zoning, and that includes solar facilities such as this one, according to a decision earlier this year by the state Land Use Board of Appeals, or LUBA (York v. Clackamas County).

The project was opposed in writing by one person, Winston Chang, who has also fought other proposed solar farms in Clackamas County, both at the county planning level and in the courts. In this case, he opposed the project on a number of grounds, including that the glare from the solar panels would have a negative impact on neighboring properties and that it was a fire hazard.

The county hearings officer, Fred Wilson, overruled the glare concern after reviewing photos submitted by Chang. He wrote that “the allegedly significantly glare does not appear to be very bright – similar to that of a pond.”

The fire hazard concern was challenged all the way to the state Land Use Board of Appeals, or LUBA, who issued their opinion in September.

Chang had argued in his petition to LUBA that “it is a reasonable assumption that a high-voltage power facility that is unmanned in the middle of a residential neighborhood, inherently increases the fire risk for all residents.”

He also submitted articles and videos reporting fires on solar farms, including one in the United Kingdom that burned a high voltage output cable at a control box, and two in California that were reportedly caused by rodents damaging solar panel wires.

Proponents did not try to argue a solar farm poses no fire risk, but they did say the risk is significantly less than that posed by the existing Christmas tree farm. Trees are, after all, more flammable than concrete and steel.

And the solar farm comes with a number of spacing and set-back requirements and other conditions designed to mitigate fire risk, as well as the construction of internal roads accessible by emergency vehicles, while the tree farm does not.

LUBA ultimately “affirmed … that fires on tree farms are more common, more hazardous, and result in greater damage.”

According to documents on file with the Oregon Public Utility Commission, Buckner Creek Solar has an existing contract to sell power from the facility to Portland General Electric Company. The contract anticipates the facility would generate an average annual output of 3,840,858 kilowatt-hours per year and begin operations by Nov. 1, 2020.

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