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Enviros Challenge Another Solar Project

HOLLISTER, Calif. (CN) - Environmentalists, including the Audubon Society, sued San Benito County to try to stop a giant solar power project that would put 4 million photovoltaic panels on 3,200 acres in the Panoche Valley. The Audubon Society has designated the area near Hollister an Important Bird Area of Global Significance.

It's not the first recent lawsuit in which environmentalists, who might be expected to support solar energy projects, have gone to court to try to stop erection of fields of solar panel. The Quechuan Tribe sued the federal government in late October to try to stop a proposed solar panel field on 6,360 acres in the desert west of El Centro, Calif. The tribe said the Imperial Valley Solar Project would harm areas of cultural significance, and hurt the flat-tailed horned lizard, which appears in the tribe's creation story.

In the new case, in San Benito County Court, Save Panoche Valley and the Santa Clara Audubon Society say the county trampled on environmental laws to approve the Panoche Valley Solar Farm Project. Solargen Energy, which would build the project and is named as a real party in interest in the case, says the solar panels would generate about 400 megawatts of power a year - enough for 125,000 homes.

But the environmentalists say studies for the project did not adequately consider its impact on species, traffic, land, water, zoning and the beauty of the agricultural valley. They also say the project was considered in piecemeal fashion, that it contains inadequate mitigation measures and fails to consider a full range of alternatives.

This violates a slew of state laws, including the Williamson Act, which provides tax relief to farmers who preserve open space, according to the complaint.

San Benito County approved 12 Williamson Act cancellations in October, though its agricultural committee recommended against that, the environmentalists say.

The project area hosts a number of protected and endangered species, including mountain plovers, western burrowing owls, raptors, other resident and migratory birds, the San Joaquin kit fox and California tiger salamander.

Environmentalists have been fighting other alternative-energy projects elsewhere, including the Cape Wind Energy Project in Nantucket Sound, which they say could hurt birds and whales. And in 2009 a Maryland judge stopped wind turbine construction in the Appalachians because sonic impacts were killing the endangered Indiana bat.

Opponents of the San Panoche solar project cite problems with glare, erosion, and groundwater in addition to harm to protected species. They want the environmental certifications project set aside. They are represented by Rose Zoia in Santa Rosa.

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