SPOKANE — Kittitas County's commissioners wrongly turned down a permit application for a major solar farm they worried would "take away from our agricultural lands and really take away from the character of our community," the state Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday.
The county must reexamine the conditional use permit sought by One Energy Development of Seattle and Iron Horse Solar LLC, which applied to build a 47-acre solar farm on a 68 agricultural acres outside Ellensburg. When they denied the CUP by a 2-1 vote in 2017, County Commissioners Obie O’Brien and Laura Osiadacz cited the farm's feared effects on the "rural character" of the agricultural land around it.
But the three-judge Court of Appeals panel said Monday the two commissioners misconstrued "rural character" as defined in the state's Growth Management Act.
"Because the Commissioners’ CUP denial was predicated on an erroneous legal determination, this matter must be remanded for further proceedings," Acting Chief Appellate Judge Rebecca Pennell wrote in the court's 2-1 decision.
The GMA defines "rural character" as a pattern of land use and development where, among other things, "open space, the natural landscape, and vegetation predominate over the built environment." After a hearing officer recommended approval with multiple conditions, O'Brien and Osiadacz both said they found the project incompatible with the rural character of surrounding land, and that natural space would not "predominate" over the solar project.
Given the size of the project, O’Brien commented that the solar farm site would “stick out like a missing tooth in a smile." Osiadacz voiced concern it would "take away from our agricultural lands and really take away from the character of our community."
The energy companies appealed to Kittias County Superior Court, but were denied by Judge L. Candace Hooper, and turned to the Court of Appeals. Pennell's ruling notes that the GMA’s rural character assessment is only one of several general standards governing CUP approval, and the "predominate" clause is only one of seven components of the rural character definition.
Kittitas County's assessment of the issue is "too narrow," Pennell wrote.
"Because the sole finding in support of the Commissioners’ legal conclusions reflects a misinterpretation of the governing law, the written decision is not sufficient to withstand appellate scrutiny," she wrote.
The Kittitas County commissioners must reconsider the CUP petition, but the appellate court found "no misconduct or bad faith" and did not order the permit's approval.
Judge Laurel Siddoway concurred, but Judge George Fearing offered a dissent, saying Judge Hooper's original denial was solid. "Ample facts support the findings and conclusions of the Kittitas County Board of Commissioners regardless of on what theory a commissioner relied in denying the application of a conditional use permit," Fearing wrote.
Jefferson Robbins: 679-7013