The Board of Supervisors unanimously approved a 110-megawatt solar facility, spanning 1,012 acres in the Santa Nella area, during last week's board meeting.
The decision came after a public hearing and consideration of testimony from supporters and opponents of the project.
The project will install 300,000 solar panels on eight parcels of Santa Nella's agricultural land on the north and south sides of McCabe Road and on the west side of Whitworth Road, according to Mark Hendrickson, director of commerce, aviation and economic development for Merced County.
The project began in 2010 when the private owners of the land -- River West Investment Inc. -- approached the county with the idea. In partnership with SunPower Corp., they applied jointly for approval of the project.
The land is within an agricultural reserve, which is why the Board of Supervisors had to take action. County officials said the land was not covered by the Williamson Act, which restricts developing agricultural land.
The facility will supply power to homes in Southern California, not in the valley.
Those in favor of the project say it will create jobs, boost the local economy and diversify Merced County's energy portfolio.
"The Board of Supervisors' approval shows their razor-sharp focus on helping create jobs in our community," Hendrickson said. "Our residents will benefit from the influx of economic benefits to our community."
The project will employ about 315 temporary construction workers for a 16-month period. Hendrickson said the county will make every effort to fill those jobs with local workers.
Once the 16-month construction period ends, the facility will hire five workers in permanent positions, including maintenance and electrical jobs.
According to Hendrickson, other benefits include a guaranteed $1.84 million in sales tax revenue from the purchase of construction supplies -- which goes directly into Merced County's pocket.
The agreement provides $240,000 to public safety agencies, including the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Merced County Sheriff's Department, for services at the project site.
Hendrickson added that the 30-year project will bring in $18.5 million in anticipated income -- salaries, wages and benefits -- during its first 20 years.
But opponents of the project say the environmental impact outweighs the economic potential.
As part of the project, 204 almond trees will be cut down and an estimated 21 farmworkers will lose their jobs.
There is concern about the safety and survival of one of California's most endangered animals, common in that area, the San Joaquin kit fox.
Merced County assistant planning director Bill Nicholson said the project is a "fully mitigated," which means the environmental impacts were addressed by the applicants of the project.
For example, they will build a corridor for the kit foxes to move north and will also conserve a "2-1 agricultural mitigation."
A 2-1 mitigation agreement means that for every acre of "prime agricultural land" consumed in this project, two acres will be preserved elsewhere in Merced County -- at the discretion of the applicant.
Of the 1,012 acres used in the project, Hendrickson said 496 acres were considered prime agricultural land. Double that number -- 992 acres -- will be preserved in another part of Merced County. This land cannot be used for anything other than agricultural purposes.
Hendrickson noted the solar facility will help the state meet their energy goals under Assembly Bill 32, signed into law in 2006, which mandates that 33 percent of California's energy portfolio must be derived from renewable sources by the year 2020.
But another concern for opponents is that the facility will not supply power to homes in the valley. Hendrickson said that's part of the Power Purchase Agreement.
Reporter Ramona Giwargis can be reached at (209) 385-2477 or firstname.lastname@example.org.