East New Market Council updated on solar farmland project

EAST NEW MARKET — A group of north Dorchester citizens is on the warpath; a warpath to convince county officials to stop and take a deep breath before committing the county to what the group feels is a path from which there may be no return. Tracy Whitby-Fairall, the driving force behind the newly-formed North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition (NDNC), updated East New Market commissioners at its Jan. 10 meeting about the progress the group has made in its fight to prevent nearly 200 acres of agricultural farmland on Linkwood Road from becoming solar farmland.

She asked for council support and attendance at the Jan. 19 County Board of Appeals hearing appeal for Sunnee Bee Solar’s special exception of a utility scale solar system, installation of a substation, and permit to build 8’ tall fencing. The open meeting will be held in the county office building at 7 p.m. “We are trying to fill the room,” she said. She explained that many people are unfamiliar with the project. The group’s concerns include: The size and scope of the project; where it is located; and, the historical and cultural integrity issues for East New Market and its surroundings.

Mayor Caroline Cline added, “Even one of those would be legitimate but all of them are so relevant.”

Ms. Whitby-Fairall said after reading the 1996 Dorchester County Comprehensive Plan she learned that county officials are supposed to work with local jurisdictions to ensure unity and a working relationship between them for any project with respect to land use.

“It’s hard to work with someone when they have not been informed,” said the mayor and asked why the plan has not been updated for 20 years. According to Ms. Whitby-Fairall the council’s answer was and remains that “budget concerns” are the problem. Ms. Cline said, “I think that’s a question that really needs to be answered. All of us here are taxpayers and if the towns have to be in compliance with that every 10 years the county certainly should be.”

Commissioner and Vice Mayor David Tolley added, “That was a terrible answer as far as I’m concerned. How can you have any guidelines about land use if there is no update? How can the county make decisions without an update?”

A major concern said the mayor is “what is this land going to be like when these people leave in 25-30 years? It might never be able to be used again productively.” Ms. Whitby-Fairhall replied, “They say they just pick up and move along and you can farm again but they haven’t been around long enough to see what is left.” She feels, “you’re going to have brownfields because you’re going to have chemicals leach into the soil; miles and miles of cable; impervious surfaces; and 60 kilovolt substation that will never go away because it’s owned by the utility. Part of the challenge is to inform on some of these details and the intricacies of the whole solar development piece because we’ve learned a lot about the process. It’s not as clean and green as people think.”

The NDNC believes many people will be negatively affected including farmers, granaries, the trucking industry, retailers, etc. “There are so many spokes to the wheel it’s almost impossible to cover them.” Mayor Cline said, “A whole way of life is being challenged.”

Ms. Whitby-Fairall explained that about 1.5 percent of the 126,420 agricultural acres in Dorchester County are on track for solar development. Talbot County recently capped solar farms at .5 percent of their acres for the time being. “That’s what we are asking – a controlled, supervised plan that will take time to build” and include advisors from all the parties involved, not just the solar developers.
“This is an issue for the entire county,” she said. “I will be an advocate for land use in this county whatever happens with our project. I will continue that because it needs to be controlled. That’s what we’re asking for – a proper plan and control. Solar and renewable energy have their place. There’s never been a question about that and we want that message to be clear. But there needs to be proper management, oversight, land use restrictions, site requirements, farm use – the list is endless.”

As Ms. Whitby-Fairall ended her presentation, Mayor Cline added, “There’s one little bit of misinformation out there that we had been informed about this (project). No one (from the county council) had informed this council. You are the person who informed this council.”

For further information Ms. Whitby-Fairhall encouraged visiting the NDNC website www.thendnc.org. Relevant documents have been posted to the site.

Vice Mayor Tolley reported that he is nearing a solution to the problems the town has had with the newly-installed LED street lights. The electrical contractor contacted the manufacturer’s regional manager who inspected the bulbs and found them defective. The company agreed to send a new shipment for installation but no time frame was given. Mr. Tolley again promised to monitor the situation.
Commissioners agreed to sponsor an activity, to replace the annual community dinner, to coincide with the official ribbon cutting for the Friendship Park walking trail in April.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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