Bryan Torgerson, resource specialist for Utah School and Institutional Trust Lands Administration (SITLA), attended the Bluff Town Council meeting on Tuesday night to discuss a proposed solar farm on the Bluff Bench.
Community members joined the council in asking Torgerson questions about the proposal.
Torgerson said the advertising period where companies could submit lease proposals for the 2,000-acre parcel ended on February 9, and although the lease has not yet been issued, the leading proposal is for an industrial-scale solar project. The company is unlikely to develop the entire 2,000 acres, he explained, and the final development could be between 600 and 1,000 acres.
Torgerson said the Bluff Bench was selected because it meets solar developers’ three major needs: a level surface, proximity to transmission lines, and a contiguous parcel that’s over 2,000 acres in size.
A 1,000-acre solar farm project in South Carolina cost developers $89 million to build and is expected to produce enough electricity to power 15,000 homes, or roughly four times the current residential usage in all of San Juan County.
Councilmember Brant Murray expressed frustration that SITLA did not contact the town council when the lease proposal was announced even though the entire project lies within the town limits. “That was a slap in the face,” Murray said, adding that he did not think the entrance to the “gateway community” of Bluff is an appropriate place for a largescale industrial project.
Most of the solar farm would be within the original boundaries of Bears Ears National Monument, which are still being litigated in federal court. Friends of Cedar Mesa Executive Director Josh Ewing questioned why this project was advancing even after SILTA withdrew oil and gas leases within the monument boundaries. Torgerson explained that the leases were withdrawn on scattered sections of state land that are surrounded by federal land within the original monument boundaries. The Bluff Bench, by contrast, is a larger section of state land that was consolidated decades ago through a swap with the federal government. As such, it’s less likely that SITLA would seek to exchange it even if it’s within a national monument.
Geologist and Bluff resident Mary Gillam presented maps to Torgerson and the council showing the watersheds in the lease area. Gillam said if hundreds of acres were bladed at the head of Cow Canyon, it could potentially increase flash flooding into the north end of town. Torgerson said impacts on flooding would be considered during a required Utah Geological Survey prior to construction. Impacts on wildlife and archaeological resources will also be analyzed. Close to half of the parcel is within the Cow Canyon drainage basin; the remainder flows west to Spring Canyon and into Cottonwood Wash.
Several audience members asked about potential tax revenue from the project, and Torgerson said that while state land is not taxable, vertical infrastructure that’s built on SITLA land may be taxed.
San Juan County Commissioner Bruce Adams indicated support for the project at a March 5 commission, but only if panels could be raised high enough that cows could continue to graze underneath them. Torgerson suggested that if the project goes through, the current grazing lease on the parcel could be partially retired, which, he said, would be a “historic and cultural loss” but not a major economic loss for SITLA.
The Bluff Town Council signed a resolution opposing the solar farm on March 12, citing worries over soil disturbance and the potential for increased flooding, aesthetic concerns, and the fact that the proposed lease is within the original boundaries of Bears Ears.
SITLA is exempt from local planning and zoning codes under state law. In the past, oil and gas leases have also been proposed on SILTLA land on the Bluff Bench.
Torgerson said lease applications typically take around six months to process, but he didn’t know the exact timeline in this case.