Proposed solar farm

The proposed location of a solar production facility, in blue, is near the Casa Grande Municipal Airport, outlined in red. The red represents the current and future expansion of the airport.

CASA GRANDE — County officials have approved amending the planned use of a land parcel near Casa Grande that could pave the way for a solar farm.

On Wednesday, the Pinal County Board of Supervisors approved a change to the county’s comprehensive plan, the document that guides county planners, to allow zoning of a 265-acre site to an “employment” designation; the parcel currently is zoned “low density residential.”

The site is owned by the State Land Trust, which would lease the land to Energy One LLC to build a photo-voltaic solar energy production facility. The entire project would encompass 438 acres. The project would be located between Rodeo and McCartney roads and west of Thornton Road. The closed ASARCO mine property is to the northwest of the proposed plant and the Casa Grande Municipal Airport is to the northeast.

The site currently is vacant but Jean Simmons, who spoke in opposition to the change, has a valid Special Land Use Permit for the site. Simmons said her family has been ranching in the area since 1955 and just in July received a renewal of their agreement from the State Land Trust for a portion of the property in question. However, Jessica Sarkissian, the applicant’s planner, said State Land Trust has the option to back out of the Special Land Use Permit at will. Simmons currently grazes cattle on the site in addition to using her own property for the ranch.

Simmons, while acknowledging that the state can do what it wishes with its land, questioned why the proposed solar farm needed to be in that particular spot when vacant land abounds in the area.

One of the neighboring parcels is inside the city limits of Casa Grande and currently has an approved planned area development slated for single-family homes. The applicant for that project, Communities Southwest, also voiced opposition to the proposed amendment, and by extension, the project, saying potential homebuyers likely would not appreciate living next to a solar farm. Supervisor Todd House, R-Apache Junction, pointed out the site is near a mine and the airport, questioning how the solar plant would be worse.

Sarkissian said her firm has been working with the city of Casa Grande on the zoning issues and trying to minimize concerns with the airport. Additionally, McCartney Road, which currently terminates west of Pinal Avenue, would need to be realigned. The potential realignment would go through the Communities Southwest project, drawing additional opposition from the developer.

In correspondence provided to the supervisors, both the city’s planning department and the airport manager expressed concerns about the project. The airport manager, David Reffner, said in an email the city has plans to extend the runway and also said the glare from the solar panels might pose a risk to “landing and departing aircraft at our airport.”

Supervisor Steve Miller, R-Casa Grande, voted against the change, while the other supervisors voted in favor. County planning staff, in their report, made no recommendation either for or against the project.

Sarkissian said her client would present the full project to the county Planning and Zoning Commission for approval after finalizing with the city of Casa Grande and the state more details of the land and airport concerns, as well as the McCartney Road engineering study.

If all were approved, she said, the plant would break ground in late 2019 and would begin generating electricity in 2020. The plant would generate 75 megawatts of electricity, enough for 20,000 homes, Sarkissian said. A battery storage facility also would be on the site.

About 200 construction jobs would be created during the build portion and three, three-person crews would staff the plant daily once it became operational. Pinal County would see a benefit of $15 million in tax revenues from the project, Sarkissian said.

Pinal County is reinventing itself as a green energy hub, with the approval of a solar plant near Coolidge and a plant east of Interstate 10 across from Pinal Airpark. Two additional plants have been proposed: a 795-acre site on the southern edge of Casa Grande near Bianco and Cornman roads, on primarily undeveloped land, and a site north of Roberts Road at Quail Run Lane in San Tan Valley. On Wednesday, however, the applicant for the plant proposed at Cornman and Bianco withdrew the application for a land use designation change on the site.

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