Solar plan draws crowd at appeals meeting

Neighborhood group opposes utility-scale energy project

CAMBRIDGE — A standing-room-only crowd packed the Dorchester County Board of Appeals meeting Thursday evening at the county office building in Cambridge.

Representatives from OneEnergy Sunnee Bee Solar LLC were seeking two special exceptions and a variance to build a utility-scale solar energy system on three parcels of land near historic East New Market at the intersection of Md. Route 392 and Linkwood Road. Members of the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition filled the room to show their opposition to the project.

Partnering with landowners Kimberly and Blair Bisker, OneEnergy signed a lease in 2014. The lease could last up to 30 years. Plans include three parcels of land totaling more than 400 acres just south of Route 392 on the eastern and western sides of Linkwood Road. Part of the property on the eastern side of Linkwood Road also borders Hawkeye Road.

A substation is planned for one of two sites — bordering Route 392 to the west of Linkwood Road behind a cluster of homes, or just off Richardson Road near East New Market town limits and Md. Route 14. The three parcels of land are in an Agricultural Conservation zone. They are not in a floodplain or in the Critical Area. Special exceptions are needed to construct the solar field, the substation and a variance is needed to construct a planned 8-foot-tall security fence.

Gia Clark, director of project development for OneEnergy, spoke at the Thursday meeting. She said of the 400 acres, 167 will contain solar panels surrounded by a fence. The 20-megawatt project could potentially power 4,500 to 5,000 homes each year. OneEnergy is based in Seattle. Ms. Clark said OneEnergy has been working very closely on the project for the past nine months and has altered plans after getting input from community members who live near the site.

“The project this evening is a project that we’ve been working on for the last several years,” Ms. Clark said. “It’s a very significant amount of power.”

Ms. Clark estimated the project would cost $25 million to $30 million. The generated power would link into the Delmarva Power lines along Md. Route 392. Proximity to those power lines is one of the key reasons OneEnergy is interested in the site. Plans include 13 power inverters on 10 pads in the center of the solar fields.

Of the 167 acres containing the solar panels, 140 to 150 would be planted with warm weather grasses and pollinator plants. Plans also include adding six more acres to roughly 80 acres of land already placed in forest conservation. Representatives working with OneEnergy also detailed plans to plant roughly 10 acres of various trees and shrubs to screen the solar fields from view. The screen includes a diverse number of native plants that will also create habitat. The solar panels could range from 8- to 13-feet tall.

Ms. Clark said OneEnergy is working to get state permits and would like to begin working on the project in roughly one year.

Wendell Foxwell, member of the board of appeals, questioned the value of the project to the surrounding community and county.

“Are we short of electricity,” Mr. Foxwell asked. “There’s only three classes of people that they (solar fields) help. That’s the property owner, you people (OneEnergy), and the ones who buy the electricity. What does Dorchester get out of it? Nothing.”

Attorney Ryan Showalter, representing OneEnergy, said all residents of Dorchester County would benefit from the taxes collected from the project and site. Also, some of the energy produced would be distributed locally.

Following an extended presentation detailing the plans, a number of people spoke in opposition to the project. East New Market Mayor Caroline S. Cline also raised concerns on behalf of the town council.

“Our concern was and remains the viewscape,” the mayor said. “It was mentioned that you will do wonderful screening, 30-foot trees, 50-foot trees. It’s hard to imagine they’ll be planted at that stage. I would imagine they would be much smaller than that and it would be a long while before the screening would be done. … We are one of the two historic districts in the entire county, the largest county in the State of Maryland.”

Dorchester Banner/Bob Zimberoff
Tracy Whitby-Fairall speaks Thursday night on behalf of the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition in front of a standing-room-only crowd at the Dorchester County Board of Appeals meeting.

Tracy Whitby-Fairall, a lifelong county resident, spoke on behalf of the North Dorchester Neighborhood Coalition.

“The coalition has been formed to protect Dorchester’s heritage and rural landscape, especially agriculture as called for in the Dorchester County Comprehensive Plan,” Mrs. Whitby Fairall said. “Let me be clear that the coalition is not an opponent of solar or renewable energy sources.

“Our case is not about home use, or on-farm use, or solar panels on rooftops. This is about an energy-generating facility that will produce energy to be supplied to the grid controlled by the PJM (Energy Market) and purchased by merchant consumers of power in the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast region and is being planned for an area that is inappropriate for its setting. The proposed system would be detrimental to our neighborhood and current way of life.”

Near the end of the meeting, Mr. Foxwell asked the many people who attended the meeting to raise their hands if they supported the project. Only two people, the Biskers, raised their hands.

The meeting began at 7 p.m. and continued past 10 p.m. Because the meeting ran so late, chairwoman Catherine McCulley decided to delay voting on the special exceptions and variance, and continue the meeting at a future date. The date of the next meeting is yet to be determined.

For more information on OneEnergy, visit www.oneenergyrenewables.com. For more information on NDNC, visit www.thendnc.org.

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