City nixes hospital solar plan, sparks debate

Brett Berntsen
A notice of public hearing sign concerning a solar farm the San Juan Regional Medical Center wants to install is seen Friday on South Drake Avenue in Farmington. The city did not approve the zoning needed for the project.

FARMINGTON – After the City Council shot down a proposed solar farm at the San Juan Regional Medical Center on Tuesday, debate remains over what drove the decision.

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 12.3-acre plot of land between West Pinion Street and West Murray Drive.

The decision shocked hospital officials — who said they had already purchased the panels — as well as others at the meeting.

“I'm still trying to figure out what happened,” Councilor Nathan Duckett, who cast the lone vote supporting the plan, said. “Our role was not to determine whether solar was a good thing or bad thing, but whether it fit in with the use of the land.”

In prior discussions, Farmington’s Planning and Zoning Commission had unanimously recommended the council grant the hospital’s request. During Tuesday’s meeting, however, Community Development Director Mary Holton expressed strong reservations about having a major utility so close to Metropolitan Redevelopment Area — a part of town slated for “vibrant,” community-based development.

Newly-elected Councilor Sean Sharer said he came into the meeting undecided, and hearing Holton's professional opinion convinced him to vote against the proposal. Councilors Linda Rogers and Gayla McCulloch followed suit, quashing the plan for good.

“I had hate mail before I even got home,” said McCulloch, who co-owns an oil-field service company that borders the proposed array. “I think people got the wrong impression though.”

McCulloch said she isn't anti-solar, but didn't think the hospital's proposal was appropriate. She said she’d rather see residential or office buildings in the area instead.

Rogers, former president of the Association of Desk and Derrick Clubs, a pro-petroleum nonprofit, stressed that she supports solar projects as well, just not in that particular part of town.

“The current zoning was appropriate,” Rogers said.

The land in question is designated as mixed-use and office professional, but plenty of industry surrounds the area.

“There’s a water treatment plant across the street,” Duckett said. “It stinks. It’s surrounded by oil yards. What could (a solar farm) possibly detract from?”

The hospital declined an interview for this story but said in a statement they are “still digesting” the council’s decision, and need time to reevaluate their plans.

In previous conversations, hospital officials said they have been planning the project for more than a decade, and already purchased the solar panels and other necessary equipment. If approved by the city, the array could have been installed in as little as three months.

Mayor Tommy Roberts, who only casts a vote if there's a tie, called the hospital's proposal reasonable, and said he supports alternative energy projects.

“You have to give great weight to what a private property owner wants to do,” Roberts said.

In his eyes, Roberts said the concerns over improper development didn’t outweigh the rights of a business owner.

Moving forward, Roberts said the hospital can either appeal the decision in court, or find another location to build the array.

Hospital officials, however, have stated that the medical center doesn't own enough property elsewhere for a project that size.

In the foreground is land the San Juan Regional Medical Center had planned to use for a solar farm as seen Friday from West Murray Drive looking northwest toward the hospital. The Farmington City Council declined to approve the needed zoning for the project.

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