A San Diego Superior Court jury awarded two landowners in Valley Center $6.5 million in damages they suffered from the construction of a solar farm on adjacent property, which altered the landscape and caused flooding damage to their land.
The verdict Tuesday came following a two-week trial in Vista Superior Court. The lawsuit was filed in 2017 by Chris Ambuul and his father-in-law Donald Sanders, who jointly own Honey Bee Ranch on Mesa Crest Road and Mesa Verde Drive, against BayWa r.e., an international renewable energy company headquartered in Germany.
In 2015 the company purchased a nearby 27-acre property that had been used as a nursery for large container trees, according to the lawsuit, and constructed a solar energy farm with hundreds of panels across the property.
The company told the San Diego County Planning Commission that the development would not result in increased runoff from the property, the lawsuit said. 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 suit said that the vegetation removal was not minimal, but instead nearly all of it was removed. In addition, when it rains the runoff from the site flows across Mesa Crest Road onto the Honey Bee Ranch property. This flooding occurs not only during heavy rainstorms but also when it rains less than an inch, the suit said.
“What they told the county was different than what they ended up doing,” said Timothy Scott, a lawyer for the plaintiffs.
The ranch has an underground drainage system, but it continues to get get overwhelmed with the runoff from the rains. The landowners have to place sandbags around the property before a storm and take other measures, Scott said — but the property still gets damaged.
The company was sued for negligence and trespass. The jury awarded $6.5 million. Of that, $4 million represents the disgorgement of profits the company made on the project. Scott said that amount represented both the amount of money the company saved by not installing the measures that would prevent the runoff, as well as profits the company earned by bringing the project online by a certain date.
He said that the project manager for BayWa wrote in a June 2016 email that if the project was not finished by Sept. 21, 2016, a Power Purchase Agreement the company had would expire and “we lose millions of dollars.”
“It would be a less lucrative contract if they linked up at a later date,” Scott said.
Gil Cabrera, the lawyer for BayWa, said that portion of the award will be the part of post-trial motions. There was never any firm number given as to how much the company may have profited, he said.
“There is evidence lacking for some portions of the jury award,” he said.
Cabrera said that the company had put in a soil stabilizer after the property was cleared, but it did not work effectively at first. Shortly after the project was built there was a large rain storm that 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, he said. There have been no flooding issues over the past two years, he said.
He said no decision has been made yet on whether to appeal.
The dispute is the latest example of how the push to develop clean energy sources such as solar and wind power to meet the state’s clean energy goals can conflict with existing land usage. Many of the solar and wind projects are located in rural, agricultural areas and are not entirely welcomed by local residents who have lived there for decades.
BayWa is involved in another suit filed by opponents of a 600-acre solar project in Jacumba Hot Springs in September 2021. The opponents said that the project, among other things, violated environmental review laws and would be “an ugly, foreboding, industrial eyesore.”
A San Diego Superior Court judge dismissed the suit in August. The case is on appeal.