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FARMINGTON – The city council on Tuesday approved the San Juan Regional Medical Center’s proposal to build a solar farm, reversing its previous denial of the project.

The council voted 3-1 for a zoning change which will allow the hospital to install about 6,000 solar panels on a 12.3-acre plot of land between West Pinion Street and West Murray Drive.

The array will provide 25 percent of the hospital’s daily energy needs, saving the facility between $300,000 and $500,000 per year, according to hospital officials.

Councilors originally voted 3-1 against the zoning change, on the basis that the project was too industrial for the neighborhood. The land in question, however, is surrounded on three sides by properties zoned for industrial use, including an oil and gas service yard owned by Councilor Gayla McCulloch.

Councilor Linda Rogers, who made the motion to reconsider the proposal, said after an extensive reconsideration of the plan, she decided the land use fit in with surrounding properties. Councilors Nathan Duckett and Sean Sharer joined Rodgers in passing the proposal. McCulloch cast the lone vote in opposition.

Doug Frary, the hospital’s vice president of professional and support services, said he’s excited the councilors had a change of heart. He said the hospital hadn’t threatened legal action against the city after the original denial, although that was its only option if it wanted to move forward.

“We didn’t have any discussions with them,” he said. “We gave them time, and we’re glad they came around.”

The hospital already has the panels staged for installation, and Frary said work will start as soon as they receive a building permit.

Despite its approval, controversy surrounding the project was still on display Tuesday night.

McCulloch said she was disturbed that critics of the council’s previous ruling had suggested she was anti-solar.

“This was not about solar,” she said. “This was about zoning.”

Mayor Tommy Roberts, who said he supported the hospital’s plan, also said critics were wrong in their assertions that Farmington puts road blocks in front of solar projects.

“I would challenge anybody to find a time this governmental body has obstructed a solar project,” Roberts said. “This is an effort to spread misinformation within our community.”

In other action, the council passed an ordinance regulating off-road vehicles on city streets.

A state law takes effect May 18, legalizing the vehicles on paved roads, but gives local governments the option to set specific rules.

Farmington's ordinance allows recreational off-road vehicles, or ROVs, to drive within the city, but still bans four-wheelers or smaller all-terrain vehicles. .

The ROVs, commonly called side-by-sides, will have a maximum speed limit of 45 mph, and need to be equipped with similar safety features as cars, such as headlights, turn signals, seat belts and horns.

City lawmakers have worked to mesh local desires with state requirements, which still mandate that drivers wear helmets and slow to 10 mph near occupied buildings.

“I think we get into a little trouble over wording, and make it seem more complicated than it is,” said Darryl Dunlap, the owner of an off-road vehicle store and a member of the city’s steering committee on the issue.

Councilors decided not to include the helmet and speed requirements in its ordinance, in anticipation that the state will change the rules during the next legislative session.

Supporters of the new law hope it will boost tourism and establish the region a destination within the off-road community.

"I live five minutes from the hills," said Dustin Lauritsen of Aztec. "Why should I have to trailer my vehicle?"

Dunlap said kits containing the mirrors and turn signals required to make the vehicles street legal have flown off his shelves.

“I'm already sold out,” he said. “It’s a good thing to see.”

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

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