By Lisa Halverstadt.
About four years ago, Imperial Valley farmer Charlie Slater learned he was going to lose 360 acres where he’d grown sugar beet, alfalfa and other crops.
It was to be transformed into a field of solar panels. The Imperial Irrigation District, a public agency that owned and rented land to Slater, told the farmer and at least one other their leases would be ending.
“I had farmed that ground for over 25 years and it was more or less jerked out from under me,” Slater said.
But the solar panels never appeared. One day, Slater drove his pickup truck up the dirt road to the property he once farmed and saw a tractor.
Slater couldn’t believe it. Someone was farming his old land.
It turns out the land’s new owner wasn’t a public agency or a solar developer. It was the Cox family, one of the most prominent in Imperial County. And they got a killer deal on it. The solar company that once eyed the property – known as the Mayflower plot – paid the irrigation district $2.24 million for the land and then handed it over to the family nine days later.
With that exchange, the family dropped its opposition to the solar projects. They went forward with no obvious changes.
All of this was facilitated by the California Environmental Quality Act, or CEQA, the state’s premier environmental law.
The Coxes – with the help of two San Diego County-based nonprofits one family member helped lead – brought a CEQA lawsuit against the project that was later settled. That settlement doesn’t appear to have wrung any changes to the project that would enrich the environment. It did, however, result in the Cox family getting more than 500 acres of land once owned by a public agency.
The plot of land appears to have simply been a bargaining chip that allowed the developers to proceed with the solar project the Coxes opposed.
Three solar farms – known collectively as the Solar Gen 2 project – now blanket more than 1,400 acres in Imperial County. And the family that opposed this and other solar projects, in part due to concerns about displacing farmers, took over land others had farmed for years.
If you live in northern Imperial County, you’ve heard of the Cox family.
The family has farmed in the Brawley area for more than a half-century and was a key player more than a decade ago as Imperial Valley weighed whether to enter into a long-term water transfer agreement with San Diego County.
Patriarch Don Cox was so influential in water and farming matters, he was hailed on the floor of the House of Representatives and was posthumously named the county farm bureau’s farmer of the year after he died in 2006.
His sons Larry and Michael Cox, who still farm in the area today, have both served stints as president of the politically powerful county farm bureau.
But it was another family enterprise that bolstered the family’s cause against a group of four solar proposals known collectively as the Solar Gen 2 projects. Don Cox’s daughter Donna Tisdale, who grew up in Imperial Valley and moved to San Diego County’s backcountry more than 35 years ago, leads the environmental advocacy nonprofit Backcountry Against Dumps and was once a top board member at another nonprofit, Protect Our Communities Foundation. Her sister, Carolyn Allen, who also owns Imperial County farmland, was a member of both groups as well.
The Coxes pounced on the Solar Gen 2 proposals from the start.
Tisdale, Allen and Michael Cox complained the Solar Gen 2 projects and other proposed solar developments in the county could rob the region of valuable farmland, displace current and would-be farmers and burrowing owls and interfere with efforts to farm nearby lots, among other concerns. Some of those nearby lots were owned by the Cox family.
The arguments matched many Tisdale and the two nonprofits have made over the years. The Solar Gen 2 projects are among more than a dozen projects they’ve challenged in Imperial County as developers pushed for renewable power producers to connect to San Diego Gas & Electric’s Sunrise Powerlink, a transmission line built to connect San Diego to solar and wind projects in Imperial County.
In the Solar Gen 2 case, developers were eager to consummate a 25-year power agreement with SDG&E and get permits to start construction.
The Cox family made their concerns known early on – and developers were listening.
Even Tisdale acknowledged at the time the developers had made efforts to appease her family.
Before the project was approved, the developer announced it wouldn’t develop on a plot known as the Mayflower property, next to the Cox’s land.
That wasn’t enough to address Tisdale’s concerns.
“Our family does own property adjacent to the Mayflower site and I know that’s why [the developers] dropped it. But they have made every effort to compensate and compromise,” Tisdale said just before the Imperial County Board of Supervisors vote. “We’re just not in a compromising position.”
Tisdale’s nonprofits, plus Tisdale and Allen personally, sued a month later, alleging the board’s approval of the solar projects violated the county’s general plan and CEQA.
Around that time, developers told Imperial Irrigation District officials that their solar projects were in doubt. A lawsuit and the delays tied to it could torpedo their plans, they said.
Developers feared “the clock would run out and they’d never be able to get to commercial operation,” recalled Kevin Kelley, the district’s general manager.
The irrigation district had a particular interest in seeing the solar project move forward. Unlike other projects associated with the Sunrise Powerlink, the Solar Gen 2 projects wouldn’t simply connect to SDG&E’s substation west of Calexico. They’d also interconnect with the irrigation district’s system, which district officials believed meant more revenue and benefits for the district and its ratepayers.
The district had estimated the project could bring in tens of millions of dollars over 25 years. The lawsuits threw that money in doubt, too.
“It was challenged at just the most opportune or inopportune time, depending on which side of the deal you were on,” Kelley said.
Then, just 48 days after the lawsuit was filed, the nonprofits’ attorney requested the Solar Gen 2 lawsuit be dismissed. The developer and nonprofits never publicly explained why, and the settlement in the case remains secret.
But Tisdale and the nonprofits have revealed some details in court documents. A lawsuit filed by Backcountry Against Dumps, the nonprofit Tisdale controls, claims that Tisdale’s sister, Allen, financed the case against Solar Gen 2. The parties received a $3.24 million settlement. The bank account of the Protect Our Communities Foundation, the other nonprofit involved, received $1 million, and the remaining $2.24 million went to farming entities controlled by the Cox family, “to facilitate the purchase of farmland property to protect it from non-agricultural development,” the suit said.
That $2.24 million was exactly what the Imperial Irrigation District had asked the developer to pay for the Mayflower property.
County and Imperial Irrigation District records show the district sold the land to a corporation associated with the Solar Gen 2 project for $2.24 million.
The land was transferred to corporations tied to the Cox family nine days later.
Records show the developer tried to make the process even easier for the family.
In February 2013, the developer asked the Imperial Irrigation District to transfer the Mayflower plot directly to the Coxes, and honor the agreement between the agency and the developer to charge $2.24 million for the property.
The district ultimately decided the developer, not the Coxes, needed to make the purchase.
Kelley, the district’s general manager, maintains the district wasn’t privy to the other details of the settlement.
I couldn’t discern any environmental concessions to the Solar Gen 2 project that might’ve come as a result of the settlement.
Tisdale, Allen and their nonprofit claimed in a June court filing that their settlement protected farmland next to the family’s property and kept it from being converted into a solar development.
But it didn’t.
The Solar Gen 2 developer had already axed plans to develop the Mayflower plot at least a month before the 2012 lawsuit was ever filed.
The developer and the nonprofits didn’t publicly announce that there had been a settlement, let alone any changes it might have forced.
The head of the agency that oversaw the project through the permitting process couldn’t point to any big changes to the project, either.
Jim Minnick, who oversees Imperial County planning and development services, said he wasn’t notified of changes other than the elimination of the Mayflower parcel, which happened before the family’s lawsuit.
“Neither did a judge tell us to fix anything nor did the [developer] come in and tell us to change anything after the approval of the project,” Minnick said. “There is no apparent change to the project as a result of any lawsuit or settlement.”
Minnick acknowledged he might not have been aware of small changes to the project, or been informed that tweaks were being made to satisfy a settlement agreement.
Then there was the fact that the project doesn’t appear to have gotten any smaller.
When a new company acquired the solar facilities in October, the project was the same size as it was when the lawsuit was filed.
The only clear change wrung from a lawsuit that was presumably over environmental issues: A plot of public land went to a private family that had opposed the project.
That family repeatedly spoke about the impact of lost farmland and the plight of displaced farmers as they fought the project.
Now they own the land that others once farmed and someone appears to be working there.
At least one parcel of the Cox family’s land was covered with rows of alfalfa when I visited earlier this month. Green grass blew in the wind on at least two others.
Slater, who once farmed on the Mayflower property, has noticed it, too. But he’s never confronted the Cox family, or heard from them. He never knew for sure what happened.
“It doesn’t seem too fair but I can’t do a heck of a lot about it,” Slater said.
Tisdale, Allen and Michael Cox declined to elaborate on the details of the settlement, citing confidentiality clauses and the ongoing litigation.
Bill Powers, who serves on the Protect Our Communities Foundation board, recalled Tisdale’s fears that the Solar Gen 2 projects and perhaps others could encroach on her family’s farmland.
“The Mayflower property was brought up as a property that could serve as a buffer from industrialization,” Powers said. “That was the intent.”
Powers, whose group voted to approve the settlement, declined to elaborate on other aspects of the settlement.
Multiple representatives tied to the developer either wouldn’t speak publicly about the settlement or didn’t respond to VOSD’s requests.
Tisdale acknowledged the 560-acre plot once envisioned for a solar project is being farmed, but wouldn’t confirm her family’s farming it. She also wouldn’t say whether her family had plans to lease the land to other farmers or use the proceeds earned to help farmers who had been displaced. She gave no details on if the settlement resulted in other changes to the project that benefited the larger community.
“I really can’t explain it other than any farmer that’s been impacted by any project had the same ability to challenge projects the way we did,” Tisdale said.
But not every family who engages in such a battle ends up with more than 500 acres of land.