Gov. Inslee approves solar project on Kittitas County farmland

Gov. Jay Inslee on Wednesday approved one of the first solar farms in Washington state, a Kittitas County project that will spread across some 200 acres of  farmland.

The Columbia Solar Project would generate up to 25 megawatts of renewable power, enough electricity for about 5,000 homes, according to Inslee, who gave final state backing to the solar farm that in July passed a review by the state Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council.

Inslee, in a Wednesday letter, wrote that the council’s expedited review of the projects showed that energy projects can be sited in Washington state within a reasonable period of time.

In Kittitas County, the project has been controversial. Some of the  tracts selected for solar panels are now used for irrigated farming, and critics said they should not be converted to electricity production.

Kittitas County commissioners had approved a temporary moratorium on new solar projects and had hoped that the state would stay out of the permitting process. That moratorium was lifted in September, but the project would still be at odds with new county codes because it does not zone irrigated farmland for solar development, according to Cory Wright, a Kittitas County Commissioner.

The developer, Seattle-based Tuusso Energy, moved to get around the county’s objections by starting the state review process earlier this year, and site work is expected to begin in the months ahead.

In a letter to the Energy Facility Site Evaluation Council, Inslee wrote that “as someone who has raised hay,” he recognized the value of agricultural lands to communities, but said that the developers had committed to ensure that the sites could eventually be returned to farming.

The project is expected to be finished by the fall of next year, according to Robert Kahn, a consultant for Tuusso.