OneEnergy withdraws Sunnee Bee Solar project near East New Market

EAST NEW MARKET — For now, the sun has set on the OneEnergy Sunnee Bee solar-panel project near East New Market. An application before the Dorchester County Board of Appeals was withdrawn.

The project was proposed for 400 acres owned by Kimberlee and Blair Bisker near town limits along Md. Route 392, Linkwood Road, Richardson Road, and two scenic byways that pass through the area. Representatives from OneEnergy, based in Seattle, made two presentations before the board of appeals in January and February. The group sought two special exceptions and a variance from the board.

After both meetings ran from 7 p.m. to roughly 10 p.m., they were continued to later dates. The two meetings were also packed with a standing-room-only crowd. Many of the people in the crowd were members of the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition who oppose the project.

In response to public outcry, the Dorchester County Council intervened. On Feb. 22, OneEnergy representatives emailed a payment in lieu of taxes proposal to Council President Ricky Travers and Jeremy Goldman, county manager, one day before the Feb. 23 board of appeals meeting. The PILOT was estimated to pay $2.3 million across a 20-to-30-year lease. Solar panels become inefficient after roughly 25 years of use. On March 7, the county council voted unanimously to reject the PILOT.

Also, the council recently introduced legislation that would tax utility-scale solar projects. If the bill is enacted, the tax would make solar facilities less profitable, but would be coupled with incentives to steer the location of future solar projects. Because the Maryland Public Service Commission can preempt local decisions relating to power generation, the tax would help to maintain county control.

Representing OneEnergy, Attorney Ryan Showalter submitted a letter Tuesday to Catherine McCulley, chairperson of the board of appeals.

The letter states, “The Board’s record in this matter contains a Payment In Lieu of Taxes or ‘PILOT’ proposal that Sunnee Bee Solar submitted to the County the afternoon of February 22, 2017. The County Council rejected the proposal without discussion, feedback or negotiation and promptly thereafter introduced Bill No. 2017-2, which would impose County personal property taxes on equipment used for the generation of electricity at fifty percent of its value. The imposition of such a tax compromises the economic viability of the project to such an extent that continued effort without re-evaluation of the economics and efficiencies of the project would neither be a prudent use (of) Sunnee Bee Solar’s resources, nor a fair imposition on the time of the County staff, legal counsel, Board members, and concerned members of the public, who presumably would participate in the hearing scheduled for April 13th.”

The letter also states that OneEnergy remains interested in the Sunnee Bee project and in Dorchester County in general. Mr. Travers received the letter Tuesday by email.

“The bill is already steering these projects and it’s not even been approved yet,” Mr. Travers said Tuesday afternoon. He said OneEnergy is, “going to have to adhere to what the community wants. … This is government at work.”

A public hearing on Bill No. 2017-2 will be held this coming Tuesday during the regular meeting of the county council. Assuming the public accepts the bill, the council will vote on whether or not to enact the legislation.

Councilman Rick Price has heard many concerns from his constituents about utility-scale solar projects in the county. During the March 21 council meeting, he moved to place a moratorium on such projects in the north county. His proposal was voted down because other councilmen were concerned that the moratorium might lead to costly lawsuits in the future. Also, the PSC’s ability to override local decisions could make a moratorium ineffective.

Mr. Price also said that the council is working to update the county’s comprehensive plan, and utility-scale solar projects need to be addressed in the new plan.

“I’m glad to see this happen, this withdrawal of the application,” Mr. Price said Wednesday, “in response to concerns I heard from people in the community and the farming community. … They’re stakeholders and they deserve to be heard. They see some changes happening that they’re not comfortable with in regard to their quality of life.”

Mr. Price said he commends members of the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition for their activism, and hopes that they continue to pay attention to local issues.

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