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.
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.
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.