Board of Appeals approves Bluegrass Solar application

Ryan Showalter, attorney for Bluegrass Solar, addresses issues raised about the project near Church Hill at a Board of Appeals hearing.

CENTREVILLE — After more than five hours of presentations and testimony, the Queen Anne’s County Board of Appeals approved a large solar array with a substation north of Church Hill.

Bluegrass Solar LLC proposes to build an 80 megawatt solar generating facility on 487 acres north of Church Hill, east of State Route 213 and north of State Route 300, on property belonging to Knight Farms LLC.

In a 2-1 vote on Wednesday, June 19, the board granted conditional use approval to permit the use of solar arrays in the AG District. Appeals board members Craig McGinnes and Bill Moore voted for approval, with Chairman Kenny Scott voting against.

All three appeals board members voted to approve conditional use approval to construct an electric substation at the site.

“If this project was just smaller and didn’t include the (northern array), I wouldn’t have a problem. But it’s just too big,” said Scott.

The board approved variances, including one allowing a proposed electric substation parcel to be subdivided without 35 feet of road frontage, another from the required 10-foot side and rear yard setbacks for the substation, and another from the 40 percent lot coverage limitation for the substation.

Plans call for a northern solar array along Sheriff Meredith Road and Ewingtown Road, and another along Bowers Road, John Powell Road, and Pondtown Road north of Church Hill on property belonging to Knight Farms LLC.

The approved construction window for the project is three years with proposed work times from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday through Friday with pile-driving and truck delivery of materials to the location prohibited on weekends to reduce both noise and traffic.

Much of the public testimony focused on the affect such a large array would have on waterfowl flight paths and the dangers of stormwater runoff to neighboring properties. According to many Church Hill residents, the proposed landscaping buffer would take about five years to fully grow to hide the array and absorb any water runoff.

Ryan Showalter, attorney for the applicant, said the 80 megawatt solar generating facility would include additional barriers to control runoff including fencing to hold back sediment and water flow.

Showalter said the project has already collaborated with Washington College in a study concerning the monitoring of effects on grassland bird habitat.

During the presentation, Showalter touted project benefits to Queen Anne’s County as $10 million in tax revenue as well as 70 acres of permanently preserved forest land, and 41 acres of newly planted forests and forested buffers.

After the 20-year life of the solar array is reached, the developer has no more than 12 months to remove all equipment and return the land back to full agricultural use without disrupting planted barriers or pollinators.

Nancy Lane of Church Hill said she opposed the project because additional development would exacerbate stormwater flow that is already high.

“(Bluegrass Solar) talks about plants and vegetation to stop the problem as well as irrigation,” said Lane. “But many people have still had to put in their own irrigation systems. As far as waterfowl, I don’t want them to stop coming, and I have a large property. I have many deer, and I don’t want that to stop either.”

Jim Robinson of Church Hill also opposed the project saying that such projects open the door to additional development.

“I’ve been here 48 years and we’re still a rural area and want to keep it that way,” said Robinson. “I know there have been expert testimony today, but I feel there’s no better experts than the people that live here. There is wildlife like bald eagles that I have seen eight at a time and they nest in the area. Species like snow geese, which are fairly new to the area, will be run off.”

Bill Quade, also of Church Hill, recalled instances how development into rural areas has caused problems with encroachment into local wildlife patterns.

“For the last 25 years, I’ve been fortunate to make the outdoors my living,” said Quade. “I’ve witnessed first-hand how big development has affected waterfowl patterns. Although only five acres of solar panels were installed near (my property), it affected such patterns.”

Quade noted that waterfowl avoid such areas and that affects hunting revenues.

Tyler Thompson of Church Hill testified that the lucrative property values in the area are tied to the quality of hunting in the area. In some instances, Thompson said, the revenue from hunting surpasses that from farming.

“There’s far better areas to do something of this size and magnitude with much less impact, like the other side of Route 301,” said Thompson. “I’m a (professional) guide, and I have to study the wildlife patterns. Just the hunting around the area generates tens of thousands in revenue. One big problem is the size of the project and that it surrounds two of the largest sanctuary ponds.”

Bluegrass Solar now needs to resubmit a major site plan to the county planning commission for approval.

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