Property Owner Questions Solar Decision

Property Owner Questions Solar Decision
The commissioners voted last week not to support an application for a solar project at this Timmons Road property in Snow Hill. Photo by Charlene Sharpe

SNOW HILL – Connections of a Snow Hill solar project remain perplexed as to why county officials voted not to support the project.

A week after the Worcester County Commissioners voted 4-3 not to support a solar project on Timmons Road, those associated with the project still don’t understand their reasoning. Property owner Charles Waite III thought that after years of research and with a solar farm already operating on Timmons Road, he’d found the perfect way to ensure the independence of the family farm while supporting local energy needs.

“As a fourth-generation owner of my farm and a former elected officer for the State of Maine for two three-year terms, it is important to note that the decision to work with Chaberton Energy was one made after exhaustive and careful consideration,” Waite said. “The decision was made through the lens of both a property owner and that of an elected representative.”

Last week, the commissioners were presented by staff with plans for a utility scale solar project, to be developed by Chaberton Snow Solar LLC, on land on Timmons Road owned by Waite. Staff said the 7.54-megawatt project would take up about a quarter of the 100-plus acre farm, most of which would remain in agricultural production. The Worcester County Planning Commission recommended approval of the project.

“This was a straightforward application with unanimous support from the appointed planning board and technical review committee meetings recommending approval,” said Waite, who has served as an elected official in Maine, where he’s been a resident the last few decades while maintaining ownership of the farm in Snow Hill.

A motion to approve the project, however, failed at the commissioners’ meeting with a 3-4 vote. Commissioners Joe Mitrecic, Caryn Abbott and Diana Purnell supported the project. Commissioners Chip Bertino, Jim Bunting, Eric Fiori and Ted Elder were in opposition.

Mark Cropper, the attorney who represented Chaberton at last week’s hearing, said he’s still waiting for the majority’s rationale in opposing the project.

“I am still awaiting receipt of the findings of fact to be adopted by the commissioners that explain or justify the denial of this request,” he said.

Roscoe Leslie, the county’s attorney, said this week the solar review process was similar to the rezoning process and that findings of fact were being drafted.

Waite is hopeful that one of the majority in opposition will reconsider their position before then so the project can move on to the Public Service Commission with local support.

“Worcester County’s director of development and review, Jennifer Keener, explained the Maryland Public Service Commission will decide the future of the solar project. However, upon review of the commissioners’  vote and a clear precedent that a 10-15 acre solar application is already in existence just yards over the property line from the future site, I believe the voters and community should expect a motion to reconsider this project from one of the commissioners from the prevailing side,” Waite sad, adding that reconsideration would show the community that elected officials were interested in providing sustainable energy to the area.

He said that when there was already solar next door powering a CAFO there was no reason not to allow solar that would benefit the local community as a whole.

“The 4-3 commissioners’ denial appears to ignore the existing precedent regarding a solar application I can see from my front porch,” he said.

During discussion of the project last week, Bunting and Fiori both had questions about the decommissioning process. Staff confirmed that a bond would ensure the site was cleaned up property once it was no longer being used.

Fiori said this week he felt more needed to be done to safeguard the county.

“Until we have rock solid disposal bonds in place, these investors just walk away from these projects and these properties become worthless,” he said, adding that he didn’t want the county to be stuck cleaning up the debris 30 years from now.

He said there were abandoned solar projects throughout the state.

“They’re huge eyesores,” he said.

Fiori believes that until the county has stiff guidelines in place officials should be wary of solar projects.

“It’s more of pumping the brakes,” he said. “We need to put some standards in place.”

Elder said he opposed the project because he wants to protect the county’s agricultural land.

“I’d like to see solar only to be used as it covers a roof or parking lot,” he said.

“I think we need to protect our agricultural land. Somewhere we need to stop putting up all of our ag land to other uses.”

Abbott, though she initially had concerns about decommissioning, supported the project because she was satisfied the county was protected.

“Once I confirmed the county would not be responsible financially for potential cleanup and that the company had to hold a bond on the project, I was satisfied that the county was protected,” Abbott said. “There is also already solar on Timmons Road.”

Bertino, while he voted against the project, said the state preempted the county when it came to decisions like this, as the Maryland Public Service Commission will have final approval of the project.

“Regardless of how the commissioners voted, the project could still move forward,” he said.

As far as the fact that the project received a favorable recommendation from the planning commission, Bertino said he made his decisions based on what was presented and what he felt was in the best interests of the county.

“I make up my own mind based on what is presented,” he said. “The system is set up for review by both the planning commission and the county commissioners. I don’t think anyone should assume the commissioners should rubber stamp a project just because it had the support of the planning commission.”