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Locals fear desert land will feed city’s energy needs

YUCCA VALLEY – As the state rushes to expand its use of renewable energy, the Morongo Basin could be a prime target for solar and wind development.

Conservation groups, residents and local and county leaders met in Yucca Valley’s community center Thursday, April 11, to discuss the Desert Renewable Energy Conservation Plan for the first time.

The plan, being developed by state and federal agencies, identifies locations throughout the state that would be most appropriate for renewable energy development in the next 30 years.

So far, the plan encompasses 22.5 million acres of land and color codes areas that could be used for solar, wind or geothermal energy plants.

“The goal for the DRECP is to plan for renewable energy on both public and private land,” April Sall, spokeswoman for the California Desert Coalition, explained.

Sall said in the more than two-year planning process, one key thing has been missing from the conservation plan: citizen input.

“They don’t make it particularly friendly for citizens and residents to go to the few public meetings they have and engage and make comments,” Sall said. “We have to engage and make sure our voices are heard and make sure that our county board of supervisors and our elected officials are educated and following this process as well. … They’re doing this plan with or without us.”

In the past three years, the Morongo Basin has seen at least four proposals for solar development and one proposed wind energy project, mostly in unincorporated areas.

Supporters argue that solar and wind development should be embraced as a way to reduce the country’s reliance on fossil fuels.

Residents at Thursday’s meeting voiced concern over the number of utility-scale solar developers buying private land for energy development, often next to rural, residential neighborhoods.

Chris Carrillo, deputy chief of staff for 3rd District County Supervisor James Ramos, referred to the conservation plan as the “mega planning process” in the state and federal government’s attempt to conserve land and habitat, but also encourage renewable energy development.

“We have arrived at a historic moment in the desert,” Carrillo told the audience. “I think it’s hard for people to believe that these huge, utility-scale energy developments are going to be coming to their backyard, but they’re coming. Some of them are already here.”

Carrillo encouraged those at the meeting to contact each of the county representatives. He said the county has jurisdiction over development on private land in unincorporated areas.

A key concern among meeting attendees was how government agencies notify homeowners when energy developers move into neighborhoods.

One woman said she was informed by a land surveyor that a solar project is already being planned near her neighborhood in north Joshua Tree. Another woman said the Lucerne Valley property her family has owned for 60 years is close to the development phase. She fears it’s too late to have a say in the project.

Sall said energy projects in rural neighborhoods will drive down home and property values. She said the county can play a vital role in the planning process.

“It is the county’s responsibility to protect regional property values,” she said Friday.