Solar panel talks attract large crowd

HURLOCK — On Jan. 9 the state’s Public Service Commission (PSC), which regulates utilities, held the 4th of several public hearings on a proposed solar panel installation in north Dorchester County. Public utility law judge Ryan C. McLean chaired the proceeding which, unlike many such hearings, was calm and orderly.

The hearings are required before granting the approval requested by Richfield Solar Energy, LLC for a certificate of public convenience and necessity (CPCN) for up to a nominal 50 megawatt generating solar facility; and, a waiver of the 2 year notice requirement.

Harrison Godfrey is Manager of State Government Affairs East for Invenergy, a Chicago-based company that develops, builds, owns and operates wind, solar, and natural gas fueled facilities for clean power and renewable energy projects world-wide. The company is partnering with Richfield Solar Energy to establish a solar farm bounded by Osborne and Shiloh Camp roads.

The project, said Mr. Godfrey, “could come on line as early as 2019 and is across four individual parcels. The right-of-way runs about a mile. Among the 2,000 acres they (the owners) farm, the one we are preparing the project for is among their least productive farms and that is one of the reasons it was an interesting project for the landowners.”

He cited economic benefits to the local community of over $5.8 million dollars over the life of the project. The application, available on the PSC website, cites 100-200 temporary design, management, and constructions jobs that will be filled and 2 – 3 full time jobs after the project is operational.

The site plan was updated from the original application through discussions with interested parties in an attempt to mitigate some of the objections to the project. Two changes that exceed county requirements include 100 percent vegetative buffers “around the entire site” and 150’ setbacks designed to address the concerns of adjacent landowners. Inverters and transformers will be at least 300’ from any property lines. “The site plan which finalizes what the buffer looks like is a process that takes place after we obtain the special exception from the county.”

According to Mr. Godfrey the required outreach to adjacent landowners was met and “exceeded county requirements.” Door-to-door surveys were conducted and letters sent in preparation for the hearings. Some opponents felt not enough specific information was offered before the hearing.

Twenty-one residents, including nearby landowners and the Richfield property owners, presented opinions. Each speaker was limited to 3 minutes.

Jana Wheatley, representing Richfield LLC, said, “I’m one of the owners of Richfield LLC with my family. We have over a $2 million investment in that farm. We bought it 10 years ago and we obviously bought it to work it. We till the land ourselves. We all have other jobs and careers because it’s very difficult to make a living farming. So we’re always looking for other projects.” After investigating several offers from solar development firms, she said they chose Invenergy “because they are the right fit for us” since they build and operate the facility themselves. “We have done other projects in the community and all of them have been met with resistance, fears, concerns, and all of those have been unsubstantiated in the end. As landowners we feel we have a right to do what we want to do with our land.”

A 60-year resident of the north county, family patriarch Ed Powell said Hurlock is “our home away from home.” He said, “Any project we do we think about our neighbors … Farmers in the early years had mostly 60 acres and it took 20 of those acres to furnish the energy to farm. I don’t think that formula has changed any.” He explained that of the 24 irrigation systems the farms have, 22 are electric. “If the time comes when food is more important than electricity it (the land) can be converted back to agriculture.”

Landowner rights
Family member Cynda Twilley said, “This is to us as much a landowner right issue as it is a solar issue.” Based on production figures she noted, “This is not prime farmland by any stretch of the imagination.” She added the project will be a “clean energy source for the shore and provide a boon to the county and its finances.” Her husband Bruce manages all of the farms and he said the Richfield property yields “just over $300 per acre less than the other farms. That’s our least productive farm and that’s why we chose it.”

Tom Cleary spoke from experience as a lineman retired after a 42-year career in the utility industry. He said that although the ElectroMagnetic Field (EMF) generated by conductors is frequently cited as a danger, it actually dissipates rather quickly and comes from overhead electric power lines. With 35’ power line poles the EMF “doesn’t have any effect on health,” he said, but the limited capacity of Delmarva’s available electricity does.

Since both Dardara Todd and her husband Howard have serious illnesses, they are concerned about the effect the proposed solar plant could have on weakened immune systems. They, like many others, are not opposed to solar power. But with no scientific studies about the effect of industrial solar farms on health they are worried. Mr. Todd said about 30 people live adjacent to the 76 acres on the north end of the project. “We would like to hold off on that section and do the solar by the gravel pit.”

Christi Brohawn had many questions: How will it (solar installation) affect the farmland? The roadways? Property values? Drainage, health risks, carcinogens? If there is a fire will the town have to be evacuated? Electromagnet radiation? “We may not be able to listen to the radio from our homes; the internet may be affected.”

Genuine Concern
Hurlock Councilman Charles Cephas said, “These people are showing genuine concern about their neighborhoods.” He said the government officials have put their seal of approval on this type of energy to meet future needs. “At this point I am for the project proceeding. I believe they have met all the legal requirements. I would like to see both sides come to a common ground by giving a little and taking a little.”

Joshua Jewell’s concerns are health risks and his belief that the project does not meet county codes. “The mile of fencing makes it look more like a prison than the farm he grew up on … Everybody who’s for it doesn’t live near it.”

Diane Jewell’s opposition is based on her conviction that the proposed acreage is prime farmland. The owners say it is not. Jeffrey Twilley said, “We are getting dramatically different results between this field and the others.”

Prior to making a decision the commission looks at “the effect of the generating station … on: The stability and reliability of the electric system; economics; esthetics; historic sites; aviation safety; possible air and water pollution; and waste disposal availability. For a generating station the commission also decides if the application is consistent with the county’s comprehensive plan and local zoning regulations.”

The application states the project “will be consistent with Dorchester County’s zoning requirements.” The most recent Comprehensive Plan, last revised in 1995 before solar installations were popular, notes the importance of making “investments for the future.” The current plan does not include specific requirements for such installations so each case must be decided individually.

The evidence and opinions presented at solar energy hearings seem to boil down to a few challenges according to those opposed to the Richfield project. The most basic is the NIMBY principle – “not in my backyard.” There is concern about potential health hazards, property values, and environmental damage. On the other side, a strong case is made for landowner property rights, an individual’s right to earn a living, taxes for the county, and an alternative energy source for future needs.

Written comments on case #9457 will be accepted until March 20 by: David Collins, PSC, 6 St. Paul St., 16th floor, Baltimore, MD, 21202. All pertinent documents are available on the commission’s website and at Dorchester County’s Planning and Zoning office in Cambridge.

Susan Bautz is a freelance writer for the Dorchester Banner.

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