What is the worth of a community’s say so and ability to decide its own future? To a group of residents in Hawaiian Ocean View Estates — more than one developer can buy.

“We’re not there to negotiate,” Ocean View resident Ann Bosted told me following a recent contentious meeting centered around a plan to build a solar farm on 27 lots in and around a residential area where she lives.

“As far as I’m concerned, this is all lipstick on a pig,” Bosted said by phone after the developer, SPI Solar, handed out slips of paper and asked the 25 residents in attendance to list three improvements they’d like to see in their community.
Built on an ancient lava flow, this home commands breathtaking views in all directions. Hawaiian Ocean View Ranchos residents fear those views will be spoiled if solar installations are allowed to be built in a patch-work style throughout the rural subdivision. Ann Bosted/Civil Beat

The hard feelings and likely rejection of any gift the company can offer is just the latest resistance to a project now tied up by a formal complaint and other hurdles at the Hawaii Public Utilities Commission.

Residents of Hawaiian Ocean View Ranchos first stepped up their opposition to the 6.75 megawatt project a couple of years ago, worrying about impacts to their property values and fire danger. Under approvals dating to 2012, the electricity would be sold to Hawaiian Electric Light Co. at 23.6 cents per kilowatt hour.

That’s 10 cents more than what most commercial energy producers receive these days when they negotiate a power purchase agreement with the utility company. SPI was able to avail itself of the higher fixed rate by breaking the project up into smaller units that qualified for the Feed-In-Tariff program, a state initiative  meant to encourage renewable sources by helping small energy producers cut red tape and compete with bigger producers.

But Ocean View residents howled. They worried about impacts to their views and property values, as well as increased fire danger from the solar arrays. The ratepayer would shoulder the high cost of the electricity in the end, opponents contended.

Under state laws designed to foster clean energy, solar farms are allowed outright and without public hearings on land zoned agricultural, even if the land happens to also be in a subdivision. This lack of any formal avenue to oppose the project may have stung residents the most. At packed meetings last year, some Ocean View folks made veiled threats of vandalism.

All the ohia trees on 16 3-acre building sites will be leveled, and the sites bulldozed flat if a solar project goes forward. Ohia trees are threatened by a fungus that could be spread if the trees are cut down. Ann Bosted/Civil Beat

Last summer, consumer advocate Jeff Ono questioned the public value of the project and the motives behind it.

“In this instance, it is apparent that the Solar Project Owners effectively ‘gamed’ the FIT process in order to avoid going through the more rigorous competitive bidding framework,” Ono wrote in a statement of position on the project.

State Rep. Richard Creagan wrote a bill last session that would have required a county permit for large solar projects, but the measure died in the murk of an 11th hour committee hearing.

It’s been hard to find anyone to say nice things about the project. SPI Solar could not be reached by phone or email for this story.

 The sailing is not yet clear for the developer.

Before the project can move ahead, the PUC has to determine the conditions under which it will approve the construction of a transmission line to carry the solar energy into the island’s grid. And before that step can be taken, the PUC must first resolve a 75-page complaint filed by the Bosted family — who pray the plan will die Hawaii-style, buried under a mountain of red tape.

The Bosteds are not alone.

“Just go away, go away, go away,” said resident Sandy Mayville, summing up what she says is the sentiment of everyone she knows.

“People aren’t looking to be bought out,” she said. “It’s the wrong thing in the wrong place and people are still very angry.”

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