City Council denies hospital's solar plan

Brett Berntsen
San Juan Regional Medical Center Vice President of Professional and Support Services Doug Frary points out the boundary of a proposed solar site in Farmington on Sept. 11. The project was rejected by the City Council on Tuesday.

FARMINGTON – The City Council on Tuesday put a halt to the San Juan Regional Medical Center’s plan to construct a 12.3-acre solar farm near the hospital.

The council voted 3-1 against a zoning change that would have allowed the hospital to install more than 6,000 solar panels on a mostly empty plot of land between West Piñon Street and West Murray Drive.

Critics said they didn’t want another industrial facility so close to the Metropolitan Redevelopment Area.

Councilor Gayla McCulloch said she owns property bordering the site and was disturbed by the number of semi-trucks driving by. She said she’d rather see the property stay zoned for mixed use and residential purposes. Councilors Sean Sharer and Linda Rogers echoed the sentiment.

Doug Frary, the hospital’s vice president of professional and support services, called the decision very disappointing and said he doesn’t know what the hospital will do next. He said the hospital already purchased the solar panels, which would have provided up the 25 percent of the facility's daily energy needs.

Frary was asked if the array could be built elsewhere, but he said the hospital didn’t own any other property that could support such a large project.

The discussion revealed a difference in development philosophy within the city’s planning department, which recommended the council pass the hospital’s request.

Senior Planner Cindy Lopez said solar projects are “good neighbors” and a way to educate young people about alternative energy.

“These are only 6 feet tall,” she said. “A fence can hide them easily."

Community Development Director Mary Holton said she had qualms about large solar farms within the city and would rather see panels installed on top of buildings or parking garages.

“I’m intrigued by this professional difference of opinion,” Mayor Tommy Roberts said. “It shows this is not an easy decision.”

Roberts said he supported the hospital's plan and called it a reasonable request.

In other action, Councilor Nathan Duckett proposed that the city draft an ordinance regulating the use of all-terrain vehicles on streets.

In late May, a new state law will take effect that permits ATVs and other off-road vehicles to be driven on paved roads with speed limits of less than 55 mph. Cities and counties, however, have the option to adopt the law or not, and set specific speed and safety regulations.

City Attorney Jennifer Breakell notified councilors that because of legal circumstances, the state law would automatically take effect in Farmington in May. Any additional safety regulations enhancing the “bare-bones” requirements included in the law would have to be drafted into a city ordinance beforehand, Breakell said.

Breakell said her office will look at surrounding states with similar ATV laws to come up with the appropriate requirements for Farmington.

Brett Berntsen covers government for The Daily Times. He can be reached at 505-564-4606.