SNOW HILL – Continuing a theme of county-wide economic and environmental improvement, the Worcester County Planning Commission met last Thursday to workshop a proposal addressing solar energy.
“This is not really a public hearing,” Planning Commission President Brooks Clayville explained to the audience. He followed up by saying that the public was still welcome to make comments during the presentation. “We’ll try to keep it informal,” he said.
Over the course of the discussion, the current draft of the plan was evaluated on its potential impact on several different levels, including how solar energy might affect business, conservation and the aesthetic balance of residential areas.
Commissioner Wayne Hartman expressed concern over the possibility of homeowners filling their yards with solar panels. It is a worry that Hartman has held since the first draft of the solar energy plan was introduced at a December commission meeting.
“It would be an injustice to a neighbor,” said Hartman, who believed a lawn cluttered with panels would be both an eyesore and could potentially hurt surrounding property values.
At the December meeting, County Development Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor acknowledged Hartman’s concern but explained that to have enough panels to completely fill one or more acres would be so incredibly costly it didn’t warrant too much thought. Hartman wasn’t satisfied, pointing out that solar technology was constantly evolving and that what might be expensive today could be next to nothing tomorrow. He also brought up the fact that putting limitations on the amount of panels into the draft couldn’t hurt things, even if those restrictions never had to be enforced.
At last week’s meeting, Tudor revisited the issue and suggested taking Hartman’s suggestion and adding language concerning what percentage of a lot can be covered in panels.
“I’d start thinking around 20 percent,” Tudor advised.
While Hartman accepted it as a step in the right direction, he told Tudor that 20 percent may be too liberal.
“If you have five acres [of property] and one house, I don’t want to see an acre of panels, personally,” he said. “Looking at these photos [referencing aerial photographs of ground-mounted solar panels] t’s not aesthetically pleasing.”
There was a lot of back and forth on the issue, with Hartman standing out as the most in favor of specific limits on how many panels could be placed on a property.
Commissioner Marlene Ott said she personally didn’t believe solar panels would be such a blemish.
“I don’t find them aesthetically objectionable,” said Ott.
Decisive limits could not be settled upon during the work session, so Tudor was asked to begin drafting language addressing the problem in the next version of the policy, paying specific attention to what percentage of ground mounted solar panels would be allowed on smaller lots, typically those between one and five acres.
Tudor then presented the commission with written public comments he’d received, a large number of which were anonymous. The common theme amongst the suggestions was a call for a shorter processing of applications, as in the current draft, an applicant wishing to install a “large” commercial-sized solar generator might have to wait months for approval.
Tudor made sure to point out that the comments only dealt with those large generators, not the residentially allowable “small” and “medium” classified solar generators. He also advised the commission against incorporating any of the written public suggestions, such as the anonymous comment that asked the Planning Commission to, “eliminate the County Commissioners approval of the site plan.”
The possibility of shortening the County Commissioners period of review from six months to three was also brought up. Again, Tudor advised against the change, claiming it could be counterproductive since the County Commissioners automatically deny a proposition if they cannot reach a decision within their review period. Allowing them six months to examine a proposal lessens the chance of that review period running out before a consensus is reached.
Harold Scrimgeour, a local developer who was in the audience for the work session, took the opportunity to give the commission an understanding of the business side of the solar energy debate. He cited the need for the county to become “net producers of energy.”
Following the line of thinking of some of the written comments, he also asked that the lengthy approval process by mitigated, stating that it was an expensive undertaking for developers and the longer it took the pricier it became. He suggested making the approval process concurrent, instead of consecutive, meaning that simultaneous review of an application can be made by the Planning Commission and the County Commissioners instead of needing one commission to approve a submission before it can move on.
Scrimgeour’s final point was an attempt to convince the Planning Commission to employ its authority on relaxing the county’s Forest Conservation Laws.
Clayville admitted the laws could, “sometimes get a little out of hand,” especially given Worcester’s rural nature. He also promised Scrimgeour that the commission would keep all of his suggestions in mind.
The last member of the public to address the assembly was Kathy Phillips, executive director of the Assateague Costal Trust. Phillips came representing the environmental angle and cautioned the commissioners about reducing Forest Conservation Laws, informing the commissioners that the county’s forests were “economic drivers,” for the area.
“I think you’re kind of heading for a slippery slope,” she warned the commission.
Much like Scrimgeour and his concern over the business aspects of solar energy, Phillips was told that her points about the environment would stay with the commission as it finalized policy on solar panels.