Tempers ran hot Monday night as hundreds of Summit Cove and Soda Creek homeowners packed into the gym at Summit Cove Elementary to speak out against solar arrays already under construction near the Soda Creek Open Space and Wetlands.
Hosted by Summit School District and Summit County officials, as well as representatives from Denver-based Syndicated Solar, the project’s developer, the meeting served as the first opportunity for local residents to participate in a public forum about the solar arrays. Since construction began less than two weeks ago, numerous homeowners have voiced opposition to the project citing, first and foremost, a lack of public notification about the solar arrays when the Summit School District Board of Education began exploring the project in September 2012.
Many of those contentions surfaced again Monday during the 2.5-hour meeting as an endless parade of disgruntled homeowners stepped up to a microphone to condemn the project. In addition to a lack of notification, residents raised issues about everything from child safety and appropriate uses of public land to charging school district officials with deliberately attempting to deceive the public about the solar arrays.
One resident went so far as to question the location of the arrays behind Summit Cove Elementary, saying it was ironic that the school district board — in its attempt to embrace renewable energy technology — approved construction of the arrays in such close proximity to the Soda Creek Open Space and Wetlands that they essentially destroyed the subdivision’s only green space.
But the outpouring of criticism was well underway before Monday’s meeting and school district officials were already in the process of drafting a compromise.
According to the original site drawings, solar panels were slated for placement on the roof of Summit Cove Elementary. Two ground arrays, known simply as the north and south arrays, were planned for construction on district property behind the school.
During the meeting Mark Rydberg, director of business services for the Summit School District, said those plans have been amended. The panels originally designated for the north array have been moved to the roof, Rydberg said. The south array, which is already constructed, will remain where it is.
The compromise was not well received by local residents who are stuck with the sight of the south array, at least for now. In the coming weeks local residents will get the opportunity to put a stop to the project.
In addition to the outpouring of public criticism, Rydberg said last week that construction was halted because Syndicated officials failed to acquire building permits from the appropriate governing body.
Because public school districts fall under the authority of the state, Colorado serves as the permitting body for almost all construction projects on school property. One of the few exceptions is when a school district partners with a private entity. In those cases permitting authority reverts back to the county.
Although Syndicated officials were directed to and successfully passed the state’s permitting process, it was discovered after construction began that it should have gone through Summit County’s application process.
Lindsay Hirsh, Summit County planning manager, said Tuesday he has received Syndicated’s Class 2 application. The review process can take up to 21 days once it has been determined that the application is complete.
Although Class 2 application reviews are conducted in house and are not aired in a public forum, such as a planning commission meeting, Hirsh said Summit Cove and Soda Creek residents could expect a lot of communication from his office.
“I’m going to over-notify the public throughout the entire process,” Hirsh said. “The planning department is cognizant of the emotions surrounding this project and we plan to exceed mandated requirements to keep everyone informed.”
According to county regulations, the planning department is required to provide public notice about a Class 2 application only after it has rendered a decision. Hirsh said once the review begins he will post information on school property in “the most visible location,” in the Summit Daily News and through letters to each individual homeowner in Summit Cove and Soda Creek. A second round of public notices will be issued after the planning department has made a decision.
Once the planning department posts that decision, the public will receive its first opportunity to derail the project during a seven-day appeal period.
According to county code, Class 2 application appeals may be filed by the planning director, the county manager, the applicant — in cases when an application is denied, the Summit County Board of County Commissioners or “persons who are determined to be materially and adversely affected by the decision of a review authority.”
Under that definition, nearly every resident of Summit Cove and Soda Creek would be able to argue a basis for an appeal, Hirsh said.
Hypothetically speaking, it also is Hirsh’s understanding that if the project is killed, either by permit denial or by way of an appeal, the south array would have to be removed because “the use wouldn’t be permitted if the plan is denied,” Hirsh said.
Daniel Teodoru, an attorney with West Brown Huntley Hunter Teodoru, PC in Breckenridge, attended Monday’s meeting as a legal representative on behalf of several unnamed Summit Cove homeowners. On Tuesday he agreed with Hirsh’s interpretation of what could happen if the project fails to acquire the appropriate permits, but said local residents would also have plenty of cause to challenge the contract between the school district and Syndicated Solar in the court system.
In addition to criticizing the school district for entering into a contract he thinks solely benefits Syndicated Solar, Teodoru said an argument could be made to render the contract void because it exceeds the term cap for contracts made between public and private entities.
According to Colorado Revised Statutes, a public entity may not enter into a public, private partnership, such as in leasing land for the construction of solar arrays, for a term of more than 10 years. The contract between Syndicated and the Summit School District is for 20 years.
On Tuesday, Summit School District officials declined to speak about Monday’s meeting, but conducted its own meetings to discuss the feedback it received from the community, according to a statement.
In addition to taking a different interpretation of its contract with Syndicated Solar, the district pledges to work more closely with Summit Cove and Soda Creek residents moving forward.
“The district appreciates (the) Summit Cove community’s attendance and heartfelt questions and comments shared during the meeting,” the statement said. “The school district and administration heard loud and clear that the removal of the currently constructed south array is at the very top of the list of concerns. We are currently talking with the contractor, Syndicated Solar, and the county to discuss the shared concerns and how they may best be resolved.”
Walter Rumpf, marketing manager for Syndicated Solar, said company officials decided to refrain from comment, pending a resolution.