CHESTERTOWN — Opponents of a proposed wind farm in Kent County recognize that they are going to need larger venues for their meetings to accommodate the growing number of concerned citizens.
Keep Kent Scenic formed about a month ago over a proposal by Apex Clean Energy to build anywhere from 30 to 50 wind turbines expected to be at least 500 feet tall. What Apex is calling Mills Branch Wind will be spread out over several farms in the center of the county, between state routes 213 and 291.
On Saturday, March 21, Keep Kent Scenic organizers Bill Graham and Janet Christensen hosted an organizational meeting for would-be members. They found themselves with a standing-room only crowd in the Kent County Public Library's main branch in Chestertown.
"If you're for wind turbines, I'm not going to recognize you at today's meeting," Graham said. "We're here to try to get our friends and neighbors together in support of an opposition movement for utilities-scale turbines in the north part of the county. You're going to be able to see this everywhere."
At risk, Graham said, are hundreds of thousands of dollars in property values for those living near the turbines. He and others have received a flood of emails from different communities that have been devastated by the effects of wind farms.
"It's pretty compelling, and it's also very scary," Graham said.
Among the invited guests on the agenda were public officials and planning, zoning and preservation experts.
There are concerns about how many turbines Apex plans to build, how tall they will be and how close to nearby homes they will be placed. Attendees questioned the environmental health issues purportedly caused by wind turbines, such as flicker or strobing effects from the shadows of moving blades and stray voltage, which is said to affect animals.
The concerns expressed at the library March 21 spilled over into other meetings early the following week. They were discussed by the Kent County Historic Preservation Commission March 23 and, on March 24, by the Kent County Commissioners.
The county commissioners approved sending a letter of consensus to the state Senate in favor of a bill that would ensure local authority over the approval of Mills Branch Wind. State Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr., R-36-Upper Shore, submitted the bill.
“The state’s public utility laws provide local governments with limited input in the Public Service Commission’s approval process for electric generation facilities. As the Apex Wind Project will span hundreds, if not thousands, of acres of Kent County, it makes sense that the Commissioners should have a say,” Hershey said in a statement.
According to a news release, Hershey and other members of 36th District delegation met with Kent County Commissioner Bill Short and representatives of Apex and the Public Service Commission over the last few weeks.
“Through these meetings, it became abundantly clear that we needed to protect the interests of, and the rural nature of, Kent County. The best way to do that was to include the Commissioners in the process,” Hershey stated.
William Pickrum, president of the Kent County Commissioners, and Short both were in attendance at the library March 21 and voiced their concerns over Apex's proposal. Commissioner Ron Fithian was out of town.
Short said he became aware of the project about a year ago.
"I've been doing my due diligence, trying to figure out the pros and cons," Short said. "The more I found out, the more Apex said my colleagues and I don't have much say in this matter. And anybody in this room knows me, I don't like that, and neither does Commissioner Pickrum. We like to have the authority over the citizens to do what you guys want us to do."
Concerned that Apex may be trying to work around the county's planning and zoning process, which does not allow wind turbines of the size the company proposes, Short said he spoke with Hershey and others in Annapolis. He also contacted the office of U.S. Rep. Andy Harris, R-Md.-1st.
Christensen suggested people write to the county's General Assembly delegation members. She said they need to hear from their constituents.
"That's a great thing for people to do," she said.
Short said personal property rights are important to him. He said the property values that stand to be negatively affected by Mills Branch Wind outweigh the money the four or five property owners who have signed on with Apex expect to receive.
"We're here to support you," Short told the crowd. "You do have our attention."
Pickrum questioned whether or not Mills Branch Wind will actually create jobs in Kent County.
"Don't be persuaded by the siren's song," he said.
Short asked that opposition efforts should remain focused on Apex, and not turn to those who have signed on to the project.
"None of these folks are bad people, period," Short said of the local property owners. "But I have heard already bad comments about the few who have signed up."
Christensen agreed with Short's statements. She said the property owners are not the enemy.
"This organization cannot target the farmers. We can target Apex," she said.
Preservation and Permits
Joe Hickman operates a farm management business based in Kennedyville. He also is vice president of Eastern Shore Land Conservancy's board, which he said has not taken a formal stance on the proposed wind farm, though he does not favor it.
Hickman said a number of farmers oppose the turbines. Others, he said, are ambivalent.
The chief issue among those in the latter group is what Hickman called the "Cellphone Tower Rule." He said a farmer may not want a cellphone tower near his property, but if one is going up anyway, he would rather be the person receiving the land rent for it.
"I'll help with some of the farm owners here to keep spreading the message and hope we can continue fighting it," Hickman told the crowd at the library.
Attendees also heard from a pair of local planning experts, Elizabeth Watson, former director of the Stories of the Chesapeake Heritage Area, and Elizabeth Beckley, of Preservation Maryland and chairman of the Kent County Historic Preservation Commission. They spoke about how the public can participate in the review process at the federal and state level.
"It's a private project but they need a federal permit. See, that's the hook," Watson said.
Beckley said it still comes down to Apex receiving county approval, too. She said the only way Apex could skirt that is to be designated a public utility, which, for Mills Branch Wind, she thinks is a stretch.
"If you can't get a local building permit, you can't build anything," Beckley said. "We hold a lot of the power at the local level."
The project also caught the attention of Queen Anne's County residents, said Jay Falstad, executive director of the Queen Anne's Conservation Association.
Falstad, a Millington resident on the Queen Anne's side, offered his organization's assistance in taking on Apex. He said the QACA has a proven track record fighting projects inappropriate for the area.
He said the QACA began 44 years ago as a dual-county organization with Kent County. He said residents on both sides of the Chester River successfully joined together in opposition of a nuclear power plant being considered for the area.
"We have had some of the experience that is necessary to stop these bad projects. I am happy to help in any way that I can," Falstad said. "This project, in my view, is stoppable."
He said the QACA is prepared to file a lawsuit if necessary to halt Apex.
"If it ever reaches that point, we'd be delighted to have Kent County residents join in with us and litigate this, because this is a legal matter, probably more so than an advocacy matter," Falstad said.
The Mills Branch Wind project was discussed again at the Historic Preservation Commission meeting March 23. Commission members viewed the websites of Apex and Keep Kent Scenic.
Beckley characterized the project as “one of the largest threats Kent County has ever had to its cultural, historic and natural resources.” She said the presence of the turbines in the area could compromise the value of existing historic properties and deter owners from restoring them.
She said the county's land use ordinance was crafted to allow local farmers to generate wind and solar power for their own use and to sell surplus back to the grid, not to allow commercial wind farms.
The ordinance sets a 120-foot limit on the height of windmills. The proposed turbines, at 400 to 600 feet tall, would be the tallest structures on the shore, she said.
Commissioner Max Ruehrmund said the towers would be taller than the tallest building in Baltimore.
“People love Kent County because of the rural atmosphere,” Commissioner Barton Ross said. He said the wind farm would ruin that atmosphere.
Beckley said Apex chose Kent County for the project because the small population would reduce the likelihood of opposition.
“There's no wind on the Eastern Shore,” she said.
Protestors with Keep Kent Scenic were out by the entrance of the Kent County Commissioners hearing room in Chestertown March 24, prior to the start of their meeting.
At their meeting, the commissioners discussed Hershey's bill and agreed to send a unanimous letter of support for it, while also voicing their concerns over the project. Pickrum and Fithian said Hershey's bill faces an uphill battle.
"I give Sen. Hershey a lot of credit and I thank him whole-heartedly for dropping the bill. My concern is that it may not pass. I think the state may be reluctant to let go of this preemptiveness that they hold because of the case of some emergency where they have to use it. I hope he's successful," Fithian said.
County Administrator Ernie Crofoot said Hershey also sought a letter of consensus from the commissioners on the Mills Branch Wind project. The commissioners directed Crofoot to submit such a letter stating that they do not support the project.
"I've had trouble finding anybody that thinks it's a good idea, and I'm certainly not going to be the first one," Fithian said.
Crofoot said he forwarded information about Hershey's bill and Apex's project to his counterpart in Queen Anne's County. He said he hopes the Queen Anne's County Commissioners also will get involved in the fight.
Pat Langenfelder, a Kent County farmer and past president of the Maryland Farm Bureau, told the commissioners she appreciated their actions. She asked what residents could do to help the cause in the General Assembly.
In addition to having residents email General Assembly members both local and from across the Chesapeake Bay, Pickrum suggested the Farm Bureau get involved.
Beckley, also at the county commissioners meeting, asked about a public information meeting at which Apex representatives would answer questions from residents.
Amy Moredock, head of the county's planning department, said the commissioners could hold a charette-style meeting. She also said Apex is required to submit a citizen involvement plan as part of the approval process.
"They're going to have to have a public hearing sometime," Fithian said.
Short also suggested reconvening a committee that previously looked at policies for renewable energy in Kent County. He said the committee may want to review the opportunities for solar power in the county.
For more information on Apex, visit www.apexcleanenergy.com.
For details on Mills Branch Wind, go to www.millsbranchwind.com.
Information from Keep Kent Scenic can be found at www.keepkentscenic.org.
Staff writer Peter Heck contributed to this report.