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Solar site runoff issue leads to jury award for damages

The developer said it had put in a soil stabilizer after the property was cleared, but it did not work effectively at first.

A California jury awarded two landowners $6.5 million in damages they said they suffered from construction of a solar farm developed by BayWa r.e.

The San Diego Superior Court jury made the award for damages caused after site work altered the landscape and caused flooding damage to their land. The verdict was reported by the San Diego Union-Tribune.

The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by co-owners of Honey Bee Ranch, which is adjacent to a 27-acre property that BayWa r.e. bought two years earlier for the solar project.

According to news reports, the solar developer told the San Diego County Planning Commission that the development would not result in increased runoff from the property. The company said it would only clear vegetation necessary to install the solar panels and access roads, and that it would reseed the site after construction.

However, the lawsuit said that vegetation removal was not minimal, but instead involved nearly all of it. In addition, runoff from the site flows across a road and onto the Honey Bee Ranch property. Flooding can occur not only during heavy rainstorms, the lawsuit said, but also when it rains less than an inch.

BayWa r.e. was sued for negligence and trespass. The jury awarded $6.5 million. Of that, $4 million represented the profits the company allegedly made on the project, the news report said. An attorney for the plaintiffs said the amount represented both the amount of money the solar company saved by not installing measures to prevent the runoff, as well as profits earned by bringing the project online by a certain date.

A lawyer for BayWa told the newspaper that that portion of the award would be part of post-trial motions. The lawyer said no firm number had been given as to how much the company may have profited.

The lawyer also said that BayWa r.e. had put in a soil stabilizer after the property was cleared, but that it did not work effectively at first. Shortly after the project was built, a large rainstorm led to runoff, but the company took steps to remediate that, he said.

Since then, the property has been replanted and much of the vegetation has grown back. There have been no flooding issues over the past two years, he said.

The lawyer told the newspaper no decision has been made on whether to appeal.

In separate action that also involved solar site management issues, the U.S. Department of Justice and the Environmental Protection Agency in mid-November reached settlement agreements with four separate solar farm owners in three states to resolve alleged Clean Water Act violations. The alleged violations involved construction permit violations and stormwater mismanagement at large-scale solar generating facilities in Alabama, Idaho and Illinois. Together, the four settlements secured a total of $1.34 million in civil penalties.

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