Solar flare: Rowdy crowd at board of appeals meeting

Tax payment proposal discussed Feb. 23 received by county council president Feb. 22

CAMBRIDGE — Another long Dorchester County Board of Appeals meeting, another continuation, and this time members of the public who packed the county meeting room got rowdy after they didn’t get an opportunity to speak.

Also, a reference to Dorchester County Council President Ricky Travers and Jeremy Goldman, county manager, drew audible gasps from the concerned crowd.

The board met Feb. 23 to consider a utility-scale solar panel project planned by OneEnergy Sunnee Bee Solar for more than 400 acres of property owned by Kimberlee Bisker and Blair Bisker. The property is near the town limits of historic East New Market along Md. Route 392, Linkwood Road, Richardson Road, and two scenic byways that run through the area. The land would be leased for 20 to 30 years, and plans to decommission the solar panels and related infrastructure are included.

At the first meeting in January, attorney Ryan Showalter presented a number of experts and exhibits while seeking two special exceptions and a variance from the appeals board. The first meeting, which ran from 7 p.m. until after 10 p.m., was continued after a lengthy presentation from Mr. Showalter. Concerned citizens, many of whom are members of the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition who oppose the project, were offered a limited amount of time to speak.

At the Feb. 23 meeting, Mr. Showalter presented even more experts and exhibits. Following another lengthy presentation from the applicants, and a number of very serious questions from the board, members of the public were not allowed to speak. The meeting was once again continued.

The solar panels would cover less than half of the 400 acres and would be surrounded by a security fence. According to the proposal, some of the land could remain in agriculture as it is now. Native plants — from pollinator-friendly flowers and grasses, to trees and shrubs intended to screen views of the panels — are included in the proposal.

The applicants addressed a number of the concerns raised at the January meeting and returned Feb. 23 with a new plan. The new plan draws the panels further away from the road in some places, allows access to more of the land for continued agricultural use, and includes more trees to better screen some areas of the project.

A number of people, who packed the room and who oppose the project, left the Feb. 23 meeting thinking that solar representatives struck an estimated $2.3 million deal with the county council to make payments in lieu of taxes across the life of the project.

At the January meeting, concerns were raised about how the county and public would benefit from the project, being that the energy would be sold into the power grid and wouldn’t be distributed locally. At the Feb. 23 meeting, Arlo Corwin, chief development officer with OneEnergy Renewables, addressed those concerns.

Mr. Corwin said the project would generate revenue for the county in two ways. First, the solar facilities would lead to a new tax assessment which would generate roughly $25,000 in increased taxes each year, or about $1 million total depending on the length of the lease.

“The second stream of revenue that we would intend to pay would be, we’ve made a proposal to the county for a payment in lieu of taxes for the business personal property taxes,” Mr. Corwin said Feb. 23. “We understand that Dorchester County has historically had an exemption, or a rate of zero I should say, for solar facilities. We have made a voluntary proposal to the county, to both Councilman Travers and to County Manager Jeremy Goldman, for a payment in lieu of taxes that would yield the county an additional $2.3 million over an anticipated 30-35 year life of the project.

“So, combined with the real property taxes, we would anticipate contributing upwards of $3 million in property taxes in both the real property tax and … the payment in lieu of business personal property taxes.”

Community members in attendance grumbled, gasped, and expressed frustration when Mr. Corwin mentioned Mr. Travers, Mr. Goldman, and the payment in lieu of taxes. Mr. Corwin made his remarks about the $2.3 million proposal between 9 and 10 p.m. Feb. 23. Speaking Saturday, Mr. Travers said he and Mr. Goldman knew nothing of the proposal until they received an email on the subject — an email that made its way to Mr. Travers’ inbox at 1:45 p.m. Feb. 22.

Mr. Travers said by the time Mr. Corwin spoke that Thursday, Feb. 23, he and Mr. Goldman had not yet reviewed the payment in lieu of taxes proposal. The proposal also had not been forwarded to the rest of the council members for their consideration.

“So, how could the council support something we just received?” Mr. Travers asked. “The council has never discussed it, never talked about a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes).”

Yet, in wrapping up his case at the Feb. 23 meeting, Mr. Showalter said, “We’re here tonight requesting a special exception from the board of appeals pursuant to a use that the county council determined was presumptively appropriate for this district. … We’ve gone through this full process to participate in the county’s regulation in this facility and to seek this special exception which the county council designated as appropriate to this district.”

Speaking Saturday, Mr. Travers said, “it’s very frustrating to me that it’s implied that we’re in favor of the project. …” Any supposed support for the PILOT from the councilmen, “could not be farther from the truth right now.”

Mr. Travers said the council received the plans for the solar project months ago and they were forwarded to the county planning commission.

“We’re letting it go through it’s due process before it comes back to us,” Mr. Travers said Saturday.

As the meeting ran later and later into the night, members of the public who wanted to have their say grew more and more restless. Besides members of the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition, East New Market Mayor Caroline Cline and representatives from Eastern Shore Land Conservancy also planned to speak.

Approaching 10 p.m., when the applicants finished their presentation, Catherine McCulley, chairperson of the board of appeals, announced that she thought it best to continue the meeting at a later date.

“Once again, we are nearing 10 o’clock and I know that other people would like to speak,” Ms. McCulley said, “because you have presented almost a different plan. … I do not feel we can proceed tonight, so we will have to meet again to conclude this.”

People in the packed room began to shout their concerns and displeasure with the result of the meeting.

“It’s like a filibuster,” one man yelled.

“I would like to know if the company here is going to be allowed to make still another presentation before the opponents are allowed to speak,” Mayor Cline said. “I think that’s a viable question.”

Another member of the public approached OneEnergy representatives and accused them of intentionally stalling to prevent members of the public from offering their points of view.

After a brief but heated conversation with a couple of concerned citizens, Gia Clarke, director of project development for OneEnergy, expressed disbelief that the appeals board did not vote that night. While Mr. Showalter and his panel made lengthy presentations, the meeting also ran late because of the many important questions asked by members of the board, and the detailed responses to those questions.

A date for the continued meeting is yet to be announced.

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