Town and County Move to Oppose Morgnec Solar Field

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Mayor Chris Cerino gestures as council members Marty Stetson, and Ellsworth Tolliver, clerk Jen Mulligan, and Town Manager Bill Ingersoll listen during discussion of a proposed solar array on Morgnec Road at the Jan. 7 Chestertown Council meeting

The Chestertown Council, at its Jan. 7 meeting, heard from residents opposed to a proposed commercial solar energy array on the outskirts of town. After discussion, the council voted to sign on as an intervening party in the Maryland Public Service Commission’s hearing on the application by Morgnec Road Solar LLC to erect the solar field on the Clark Farm on Morgnec Road.

Elizabeth Watson and Janet Christensen-Lewis of the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, and Frank Rhodes, who owns a furniture business across Morgnec Road from the site under consideration, spoke to the council.

Watson said she was offering herself as a resource to the council for background on the issue of the solar field. She said she first became aware of the site some 10 years ago when the Eastern Shore Land Conservancy was involved in a project to develop the Clark Farm as a mixed-use residential area. That project, which included some solar energy for the homes and businesses, was widely praised for its attention to environmental issues, but it was abandoned when the Great Recession of 2008 made it unrealistic to continue. The site is in a designated growth area for Chestertown, according to the town’s comprehensive plan.

The immediate situation, Watson said, depended on the Kent County Commissioners’ decision on a request by Morgnec Road Solar for a zoning text amendment for the property, which is under county jurisdiction. With two newly-elected commissioners, that decision may not be made before a pre-hearing on the case by the Public Service Commission, scheduled for Jan. 23. If the town enlists as an intervening party in the case, it can request a postponement of the preliminary hearing, allowing the county time to decide on the developer’s request for a text amendment to allow solar fields in residential and commercial districts throughout the county. It would also allow the town, through its attorney, to negotiate conditions with the state. “It’ll give you a say, in the worst case,” Watson said.

“I believe in renewable energy, big-time,” Watson said. “I just believe it’s the wrong place.” The county’s zoning has set aside several areas where commercial solar power generation is permitted, many of them near the Route 301 corridor between Galena and Millington. Watson said the county was one of the first in the nation to look at zoning for solar installations, and it remains “ahead of the game” in providing for it and welcoming it. But there need to be places for people to live and work, and the Clark farm is far better suited for that use, she said, especially considering its location on one of the main entrances to town.

Councilman Ellsworth Tolliver asked why the developer was insistent on using this site, when the county zoning has set aside others for the purpose.

Watson said the proximity of an electrical substation and a major loop of power lines was a major factor, allowing the developer to sell their power directly to the grid. She said it’s typical for developers to find a piece of land they think will work, then try to get the zoning changed to accommodate their projects. She noted that the substation would need to be enlarged to handle the new load.

Elizabeth Watson (left) and Janet Christensen-Lewis of the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance

The developer has an option for a 35-year lease on the property, said Christensen-Lewis. The lease depends on county approval for the project.

Councilman Marty Stetson said that when the proposal first came before the council, a couple of years ago, he asked how many employees the project would have once it was completed. He said the developer tried to shift the answer to the number who would be employed during construction, but when pressed admitted there might not be even one full-time employee once the array was up. “I just think there’s a better use for the property than what they’re proposing,” he said. “Why don’t they go down to the landfill?”

Mayor Chris Cerino said the council appeared to be in agreement that the project was “not a great idea.” He asked whether the council was willing to incur more legal expense to oppose it if it wasn’t necessary at this stage. He asked if the council could simply refer to its previous letter of opposition.

Watson said the developer has opened a new case, so the town needs to submit a new letter to be listed as an intervening party. It could incorporate the previous letter with an updated cover letter and wait for further developments before taking any more action, she said.

Frank Rhodes

Rhodes said he supports solar energy if it is managed correctly. He handed around a set of images that he had presented to the county’s planning commission, including a map of the proposed installation and simulated before-and-after views of the field as it would appear from the roadside – although he said he wasn’t aware until Watson mentioned it that the panels would be 20 feet high, so his depiction was actually less intrusive-appearing than the actual proposal. He noted other businesses and government installations along the route – including Bramble Construction, Atlantic Tractor, the State Highway Administration and the Kent County Public works building. The KRM business campus adjoins the property at its northwest corner, and there are several homes in the vicinity.

Rhodes said he had asked the planning commission that the proposed solar field be kept a minimum of three miles from any town in the county. He also asked that the developers provide enough money up front to decommission the facility, adjusted if necessary for inflation. In addition, he asked that the principals agree not to sell the facility to any overseas company. Summing up, he said it would be “nice to have something better” on the property. “I don’t like the idea of having this as a gateway to Chestertown. It’s just too close,” he said.

After Rhodes’ presentation, Town Manager Bill Ingersoll summarized the issues, noting that the last time the project was turned down, the developers approached the town to ask about annexation. He read the letter previously sent, which asked the Public Service Commission to postpone action pending the appeal of a Washington County court case challenging the doctrine under which the Public Service Commission can overrule local zoning to preemptively issue a certificate of public necessity for power plants. Kent and Queen Anne’s counties are parties to that case. He said that it would be appropriate for the town to contact its representatives in Congress to address the federal law allowing preemption of local zoning, which he said is being applied wrongly today. He recommended that the council adopt a motion to add itself as an intervening party.

Tolliver said that he was initially reluctant to take a position on the case, but he had studied the issue since the last council meeting and felt that the town should intervene. He so moved, and the motion carried unanimously.

Tuesday night, in her departmental report at the County Commissioners’ meeting, Amy Moredock, county director of planning and zoning listed the Morgnec Road project among several text amendment requests to be heard by the commissioners. She reported that the county planning commission, in its December 2018 meeting, unanimously recommended that the request be denied. The planning commission’s letter to the commissioners cited the following reasons for the unfavorable recommendation:

• The County identified and designated locations suitable for larger utility-scale renewable resource facilities through the Renewable Energy Task Force (RETF) recommendations made in 2011. The RETF reconvened in 2015 to review the existing Ordinance provisions in this regard. At that time, the Planning Commission and County Commissioners found that the standing renewable energy provisions served the needs of the public and remained consistent with the Ordinance and Comprehensive Plan.

• Therefore, the Commission does not find that a public need now exists for the proposed text amendment.

• Further, the County has designed zoning districts in which the proposed use is already permitted.

• Many parcels zoned RR [Rural – Residencial] and CR [Commercial – Residencial]are located within mapped designated growth areas, as well as within Tier 1, 2, and 3 Areas. Therefore, this proposal is inconsistent with municipal growth areas.

• The purposes of the RR and CR Districts are to provide for residential development, as well as commercial uses which support the communities and provide economic development opportunities.

• The amendment has been put forward solely for the interest of the applicant, as it is compatible with the developer’s business model with no economic development potential for the County.

• The proposed amendment deviates from the Comprehensive Plan, as the scale of the proposal is neither consistent with the Comprehensive Plan nor the Intent of the Zoning Districts to which this proposal applies.

The full letter from the County Planning Commission to the Kent County Commissioners and Morgnec Road Solar’s application for the text amendment are available as attachments to the commissioners’ Jan. 8 agenda.

The county commissioners will schedule and advertise a public hearing at which both the applicants and opponents can present their cases before deciding whether to grant the text amendment. In response to a question by the commissioners, Moredock said that the planning commission’s attorney has filed to intervene in the Morgnec Solar case. The Town of Chestertown and the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance were also requesting intervening party status in the case before the Public Service Commission.

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Letters to Editor

  1. James Merrill says:

    Yet another reason NOT to consider starting a business in Kent County/City of Chestertown. If it is not the college or Dixon Valve zoning is a complete non-starter to anyone wanting to start a business. You’d would think a failing tourism trade for force a little forward thinking into other areas of commerace. When is a non-retail industry is going to get at least fair chance? Not anytime soon as I see it.

    • Janet Christensen-Lewis says:

      This particular developer has a fair chance for starting this non-retail business in one of the Kent County zoning districts that allows for utility scale solar. The property in question is not one of those districts where it is allowed.

      Can you name a business that is flat out denied the ability to locate their business in at least one of the multiple zoning districts included in the Kent County Land Use Ordinance?

    • James,
      Is a business that would need as many acres as this one would without employing any full time employees be the best use of land so close to Chestertown or any town….anywhere?

      • joe Diamond says:

        Joe,
        Farming is not a grand employer the way it is done here. It i all done by machine…..often a machine owned by the land owning farmer. Employees are an overhead that has been chased from farming………Solar would use only slightly more employees….most of the time..like in crop fields…there would just be sunshine….The point is that sold is a way out of farming. less soil activity and fuel use……The crop becomes energy….joe

  2. Robert Randall says:

    The knee-jerk reaction to oppose renewable energy in the county is unfortunate. The same effort should instead be spent opposing fracking, coal-fired power plants, and nuclear plants, all of which are truly damaging. The proposal that solar should be kept three miles from any town is absurd. One thousand feet setback from roads and appropriate planting of trees would render any solar farm invisible to those members of the public who are offended by the sight of renewable energy, silly though that perception might be.

    The people of the county should embrace with pride any effort to build renewable energy generation and enthusiastically work to help find the least costly ways to make them visually acceptable or render them invisible.

    • Janet Christensen-Lewis says:

      Robert,

      Kent County has no ordinance that states solar should be kept three miles from any town. Many of the photovoltaic arrays in the county are installed very close to towns, including Rock Hall, Worton, Kennedyville Chestertown and soon Massey.

      Far from a knee jerk response:
      Kent County has land that is zoned for utility scale solar.
      Kent County was one of the first to adopt zoning to support solar and designate those districts where solar is an allowed use.
      Some of the first municipal aggregated virtual net metered solar collection systems were installed in Kent County. There are currently 5 aggregated net metered systems in the county, one of which supplies Chestertown.
      We are 2nd in per capita solar energy production (Somerset has moved into #1) far ahead of population centers of Montgomery County and Baltimore City.

      There are sound reasons for why this site is inappropriate; not the least of which is that solar collection systems are allowed in Rural Residential and Community Residential Districts, but utility scale solar is not an allowed use. The Sustainability Growth and Agricultural Preservation Act established the requirement for counties to designate growth area. These classifications, Tier I through IV-A, were adopted by Kent County. This developer has chosen to ignore this, disregarding Land Use Ordinance and Comprehensive Plans, in order to build in this Tier II planned sewer (future growth for Chestertown) area.

      Many Statewide organizations have tried to get speculators, developers, solar lobbying groups and environmental advocates for solar energy to acknowledged that land use issues need to be recognized and collectively solved. So far proposals offered to remove some of the pressure on land which include: ways to increase incentivize solar on rooftop, brownfield, parking lots, under transmission line rows, on capped landfill, abandoned shopping centers, and reservoirs have not found a very receptive audience within those groups.

      Other States have enacted preferred and non-preferred solar site locations with success, Maryland must follow suit.

  3. Virginia Kerr says:

    “Unsightly” but healthier than current fossil fuel power?

    One sentence in this article makes me question every aspect of oppositional reaction to locating a solar power field on this particular sited Morgnec Road:

    “Watson said the proximity of an electrical substation and a major loop of power lines was a major factor, allowing the developer to sell their power directly to the grid.”

    Shifting to renewable energy ASAP is undeniably vital for the welfare of all people. To accomplish this will require a balanced perspective among town leaders and willingness to work closely with and to fully understand precisely why a site is chosen as viable; taking into account the expertise of any developers in question. As a community member my first concern is that our leadership ensure that the professionals contracted in renewable energy projects in Kent County are vetted insofar as their qualifications and track record with planning, executing and maintaining the infrastructure involved with building a solar energy plant that will reduce and ultimately replace dependence on carbon fuels while providing dependable power resources.

    As to the unsightly aspect, a simple solution to avoid may be to plant a border with appropriate green hedges. From the ground level people wouldn’t have to view any two story solar structures.

    Once again, proximity was cited as a reason for the location. Electrical production and transmission capacity must meet the planned demand and the electricity produced needs to reach the load.

    I submit that the area in question on Morgnec Road could meet the functional needs of the township more realistically than more remote locations suggested elsewhere. Moreover the benefits of clean solar energy are worthy of much greater consideration and significantly more in-depth understanding of the technology. Dismissal of this solar power project for Kent County due to nothing more than queasiness over ‘what it’s going to look like’ is not only trite it is potentially irresponsible.

    Frankly I’m sick of the NIMBY mentality that negates progress toward clean energy in Kent County. The stakes are so high one would think the best interests of our children and mitigation of climate change already affecting our community might prevail over opinions concerning the aesthetically pleasing effect upon an existing commercial district that is already no more attractive to the eye than a shining solar collection array may be to some. Beauty after all is in the eye of the beholder.

    • Keith Thompson says:

      Virginia, as far as I’m concerned you are 100% correct. In every application for solar farms, I’ve heard that the most important aspect for the developers is easy access to the grid. Repeatedly county officials cite that there are areas not suitable or zoned for agricultural use that are appropriate for solar farms, but I suspect that these locations are not suitable for solar farms precisely because these sites do not have easy access to the grid. If the county was interested in attracting solar farms while also preserving agricultural land, it should not be difficult to redraw the zoning maps to recognize the sites near the power grid that could serve the needs of solar farm developers while strictly maintaining agricultural zoning for the areas not suitable for solar farms. I would think that both could co-exist, but that would mean more flexibility and a willingness to compromise from local government and residents.

  4. Gren Whitman says:

    Another comprehensive and thoroughly researched report by the Spy’s Peter Heck.
    Thank you.
    Keep industrial solar power arrays in areas zoned for them. Morgnec Road Solar LLC needs to stop trying to bend public will for private gain.

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