Planning Commission Approves Recommendation to Increase Solar Energy at Expense of Trees

By Neshmia Alam

DAVIS, CA — On Wednesday, the Davis Planning Commission (PC) approved applications from Ameresco to install a total of 14 photovoltaic (PV) carports at 202 Cousteau Place and 260 Cousteau Place, with each location receiving eight and six carports respectively. 

The Planning Commission held a public hearing in order to determine whether the planned project would be exempt from CEQA Guideline Sections 15303 and 15304. These exemptions would allow Ameresco to install the carports even if it leads to alterations of the land. 

The project applicant, Ameresco, is a publicly traded American company that implements clean energy sources such as solar PV. 

202 Cousteau Place and 260 Cousteau Place are owned by Buzz Oates, who is partnering with land development company Ramco Enterprises.

Community Development and Sustainability Planner Eric Lee presented an overview of Ameresco’s application.

According to Lee, the project “would install solar PV on the building rooftops” as well as “in the parking lot” in order to offset “approximately 78 percent of [the] annual electricity usage” at 202 Cousteau Place and “about 52 percent” at 260 Cousteau Place. 

However, the project is not without drawbacks. Lee explained that to accommodate the solar carports, there would be a “total 83 trees removed” of  “varying size and health.” 

Ameresco would be allowed to remove these trees due to an approved modification permit, which Lee explained included the need to “pay a mitigation fee of about $164,000 for the tree removal.”

Lee also detailed guidelines provided to the applicant by the Davis Tree Commission (TC) and the Davis Natural Resources Commission (NRC). 

These recommendations included Ameresco’s consideration of things such as “shading and screening,” “placement [of the solar PV],” and “prioritizing planting [trees] versus payment of [mitigation] fees.”

According to Lee, the project “generally does comply with some of the recommendations.” He specifically cited efforts to “[maximize] the existing rooftop” and “preserve the perimeter trees along the site.”

However, the project application does not comply with all of the TC and NRC recommendations. In particular, Lee referenced a shading requirement change “from 50 percent currently, to 60 percent” that was not adopted by the project.

Lee concluded by presenting sample renderings of the project and sharing that “the project does meet the findings [of exemption from CEQA] and can be supported.”

Following Lee’s presentation, Ramco Vice President Dan Ramos and Ameresco’s Senior Director of Business Development Alex Podolsky were given the opportunity to speak to the commission.

Podolsky explained that “this is a pilot project” that is important “in terms of committing to solar.” Acknowledging the concern for tree removal, Podolsky also stated that the applicant and property owners “want to do all [they] can to save trees on this site.”

He stated that Ameresco was “amenable to planting as many additional trees as would be necessary to minimize the overall tree reduction.” He also informed the commission that the company “agreed to the $164,000 mediation fee.”

Podolsky stressed the longevity of the solar PV installments, stating that they are expected “to have a 30 year productive life,” making them “very long lived, very productive systems.”

Podolsky also shared the carbon offset of the solar PV installments, reporting that they provide a carbon offset “equivalent of 2,500 acres of trees.”

He stressed that removing the trees in favor of solar canopies “will actually increase the safety [of the parking lot] significantly” due to the fact that “lighting is actually obscured by the trees,” making the parking lots of 202 Cousteau Place and 260 Cousteau Place darker due to the cover of the trees.

Ramos informed the commission that he had previously spoken to Alan Hirsch, a Davis resident and activist advocating for increased tree planting. He said that after speaking to Hirsh, he agreed to “work closely with arborists to find other spots to plant the trees on the site.”

Following the applicant presentation, commissioners were given the opportunity to ask further questions and engage in a discussion regarding the project.

During their discussion, commissioner Georgina Valencia expressed that the project was “very positive” but suggested that “it sounds as though there may be some ability to rethink.”

One aspect necessitating rethinking, according to Valencia, is that “the fire department requires access to the building in case of emergency. For this reason it is preferred to not place [solar canopies].”

In response to this concern, Podolsky stated that “the preference really was to maximize the areas of the parking area that did not impact fire access to the buildings” and that “the current design was better at providing that access.” 

Valencia also mentioned an idea from the TC “of the car lanes having solar panels” in an effort to minimize tree removal. Other commissioners expressed their desire to pursue alternatives like this in order to protect the on-site trees.

Commissioner Stephen Streeter emphasized that the TC’s and NRC’s meetings and guidelines were created “because of the dilemma of trying to balance the two objectives” of saving trees and implementing solar energy. 

Vice Chair of the PC, Emily Shandy, reiterated interim guidelines from the TC which specified “strong justification being required to remove healthy, established trees” and asserted that “I find myself a little bit unconvinced” of strong justification in this case. 

PC Chair Greg Rowe, however, questioned whether recommendations should stop the application from being approved, stating that “my interpretation is that these are merely recommendations and have no legal applicability.”

During public comment, Alan Hirsh urged the commission to accept the application, but also consider the planting of more trees.

Upon further commission deliberation, Valencia’s previous concern of not finding alternative locations to install solar PV without tree removal was raised. 

Podolsky and Lee gave various reasons for implementing PV at the cost of tree removal, including aesthetic concerns. 

Rowe shared his support for the application, asserting that the cost of the tree removal was worth the benefits of solar energy. He concluded that “trees don’t grow energy.”

Commissioner Michelle Weiss moved to recommend the application on the “condition that they engage [with] an arborist” in order to assess where new trees could be planted. 

The PC unanimously voted to recommend the application to City Council at a later date.

About The Author

Jordan Varney received a masters from UC Davis in Psychology and a B.S. in Computer Science from Harvey Mudd. Varney is editor in chief of the Vanguard at UC Davis.

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2 Comments

  1. Don Shor

    So this adds to the previous removal of trees for solar at Sutter, with a combined total of something like 150 trees killed for solar panels in just the last few months.

    “this is a pilot project” that is important “in terms of committing to solar.”

    That’s the problem. As current policy is implemented, solar panels kill trees. As new rooftop solar is mandated in California, solar panels prevent trees.

    Solar panels have become a serious and increasing threat to our urban tree populations. Given the numbers already killed and the likelihood of more applications of this type, this is an urgent policy matter.

     

  2. Alan Miller

    I find the entire premise of it being OK to tear down mature trees in order to install solar panels repugnant.  Solar panels are not a must-have that trumps all decency.  There are massive swaths of land to build solar (freeway medians come to mind).   Solar panels should always be secondary to our value of trees.  Mature trees should never be turn out for solar panels.  This trend is disturbing AF.

    removing the trees in favor of solar canopies “will actually increase the safety [of the parking lot] significantly” due to the fact that “lighting is actually obscured by the trees,”

    This is a wildly disturbing statement.  It’s that assumption that the lighter areas are, the safer they are — the logical conclusion is to light up Davis like a Walnut parking lot – in the name of safety.  Trees obscure lighting all over Davis.  I ran into this same argument when fighting for non-white streetlights in two campaigns.  A (thankfully small) number of people argued that the whiter and brighter Davis streets, the safer they were.  Arrrrrrg!  So let’s sterilize Davis is the name of solar energy and safety 😐

    Rowe . . . concluded that “trees don’t grow energy.”

    There is so much wrong with the diseased statement.  They actually, literally, do grow energy – if not electricity.   A site with mature trees is not a necessity.  Take that statement to its conclusion and imagine Davis in 2100.  Wrong Sick Disturbed.

     

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