CHESTERTOWN — While county officials shot down a zoning change aimed at allowing the proposed Morgnec Road Solar array, state regulators have scheduled a public hearing this month on the utility-scale project.
Stevensville-based developer Urban Grid with Fair Promise Limited Partnership, which owns the Morgnec Road property in question, seeks to build a 45-megawatt solar farm just outside of Chestertown.
The project siting has raised concerns among town and county officials, as the property is one they have designated as a residential and commercial growth area.
The Maryland Public Service Commission, which issues the requisite Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity for utility projects, is holding a public hearing on Morgnec Road Solar at 7 p.m. Wednesday, April 24 in the Norman James Theater in William Smith Hall at Washington College. The Morgnec Road Solar CPCN application and other documents relating to the project may be found on the PSC’s website, docketed as Case No. 9499.
“Members of the public who wish to comment on the proposal are welcome to attend the hearing before Public Utility Law Judge Kristin Case Lawrence. A second public comment hearing is planned for October 2019 at a date, time and location to be determined,” states a news release from the PSC.
The Kent County Commissioners held a public hearing last month on a zoning text amendment sought by the Morgnec Road Solar developers. The amendment would have allowed utility-scale solar arrays in the Rural Residential and Community Residential zoning districts as a special use exception, which would require approval from the Board of Zoning Appeals.
On April 2, Commissioners Tom Mason and Bob Jacob rejected the proposed amendment in a 2-0 vote. Commissioner Ron Fithian was absent.
Prior to the April 2 vote, Mason read a prepared statement about his concerns over the proposed amendment, speaking about how the zoning districts it would have affected “were designed and recognized for residential and commercial uses that bring real and continuing revenue into Kent County.
“I take offense to the comments by the CEO and president of Urban Grid that we prohibit utility-scale projects. We allow them in properly zoned areas,” Mason said, reading from a statement.
Urban Grid CEO and President Frank Depew said at a March 19 hearing before the county commissioners that the current zoning ordinance “if not preempted by state law, would impose an effective ban on all utility-scale solar projects.” While the local zoning may not allow for the development of Morgnec Road Solar, the state through the PSC could seek to pre-empt the county ordinance in approving a CPCN for the project.
“Our proposed text amendment allows for the development of these resources in a limited and controlled way, balancing Kent County’s interest in controlled development with the state’s interest in combating climate change and increasing renewable energy generation,” Depew said at the March hearing.
Continuing with his statement April 2, Mason said he sees at best some short-term economic benefits to utility-scale solar projects during their construction.
“But there are no long-term job or long-term tax benefits to these utility projects,” Masson said.
He also raised concerns that if the amendment was approved and Morgnec Road Solar moved forward, the developers would follow the example of their counterparts who have received the green light for a solar project in Massey in asking for tax breaks.
The developers of the 6-megawatt Blue Star Solar last year initially submitted to the commissioners a payment in lieu of taxes, or PILOT, plan that would have seen them pay less than $50,000 over the array’s 35-year life span instead of the estimated $875,665 in personal property taxes owed the county over the same period of time. The break approved by the commissioners in January left Blue Star Solar on the hook for an estimated $645,760 over the life of the array.
“If Urban Grid or any other solar group are really concerned about the community, schools and the livelihoods of the people in our rural areas, they would want to give over and beyond their tax obligations instead of wanting to reduce it,” Mason read from his statement April 2.
Mason and Jacob also spoke about the county’s comprehensive plan for land use and growth as it pertains to solar development.
“There’s no common sense analysis that approval of this text amendment is consistent with the purpose and intent of the Kent County Comprehensive Plan and that this change will enhance the quality of life and protect the rural character of the county while protecting the residents’ health, safety and welfare as the president of Urban Grid claims,” Mason read from his statement.
Jacob said he is “sticking with the comp plan.”
As for Fair Promise Limited Family Partnership, Mason described them as “fine Kent County citizens” and said he understands their frustration in trying to develop their farm as a residential or commercial use.
“It is my hope that Kent’s economic development department, along with the Town of Chestertown, can more aggressively move forward with finding and encouraging the residential and business use that this zoning permits,” Mason said.