ANNAPOLIS — State Sen. Stephen S. Hershey Jr.’s bill ensuring local control over a controversial wind farm project failed to get out of committee.
In response to constituent concerns over Apex Clean Energy’s plans to build 25 to 35 500-foot-tall wind turbines in the Kennedyville area, Hershey, R-36-Upper Shore, submitted a bill late in the 90-day General Assembly session ensuring the Kent County Commissioners would determine the project’s fate.
Apex is seeking a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the state Public Service Commission, leaving local opponents of the Mills Branch Wind project concerned that the county will not have a say in the approval process. The bill would have barred the PSC from granting a CPCN to Apex without the county commissioners having first signed off on the project.
In a phone interview Tuesday,
April 14, Hershey said the bill was filed late in the session, with little time to get through committee hearings and floor debates in both houses of the state legislature.
He filed the bill March 25 and it was heard by the Senate Finance Committee April 7, about a week before the session’s April 13 end. Had the committee approved the bill, it would have gone to the Senate floor for a vote. If the full Senate voted for it, it would then have started a similar process again in the House of Delegates.
“We were lucky to get a hearing to begin with,” Hershey said.
He said committee members were concerned about setting a precedent granting too much or, in Kent County’s case, sole authority over industrial wind farms.
The good news, Hershey said, is that the chairmen of the Senate Finance and House Economic Matters committees plan to cosign a letter to the PSC, asking for a review of the CPCN process. He said the chairmen want to know how much authority local jurisdictions have and how much weight their concerns carry in the PSC’s decision-making process.
“I think it’s a win for us regardless of not getting the bill,” Hershey said.
Hershey said the finance committee chairman, Sen. Thomas McLain “Mac” Middleton, D-28-Charles, sympathizes with the Kent County Commissioners and local residents over their concerns with Apex’s project. Hershey said the committee heard loud and clear that local residents believe in renewable energy and are incorporating it into the county’s portfolio, but do not want Mills Branch Wind built.
He said two other wind farm projects in Maryland have been canceled. He said concerns about the Kent County project could lead the state to review its renewable energy portfolio guidelines.
“And I think that’s a good thing for us as we go forward with renewable energy projects,” Hershey said.
He said industrial wind farms may work well in Midwestern states, like Iowa and Oklahoma, that have large swathes of land with plenty of acreage between turbines and people.
“I don’t think they fit in well with what we have here on the Eastern Shore,” Hershey said.
At the Kent County Commissioners’ meeting, Tuesday, April 14, Commissioner Bill Short said the effort to make the county’s case for local determination was successful despite the failure to pass Hershey’s bill. He said it was “a powerful statement” that two committee chairs agreed to talk to the PSC on the county’s behalf.
Short also said the county was preparing maps of the corridor where the turbines are being proposed to determine what easements need to be defended.
“I feel good about where we are,” he said. “The state supports us.”
Commission President William Pickrum said it would be “a public relations nightmare” for the PSC to rule against the county after the level of opposition to the wind farm expressed at the hearings on Hershey’s bill.
Elizabeth Watson, of the Keep Kent Scenic group, read a statement thanking the commissioners and Hershey for their efforts to preserve “Kent County’s many special qualities.” She asked the commissioners to put the issue on their agenda for next week to discuss what the next steps to protect the county should be.
Staff writer Peter Heck contributed to this report.