CHESTERTOWN — A public utilities law judge has denied the Mills Branch Solar application to build a 60-megawatt solar power array on some 370 acres of Kent County farmland.
Amy Moredock, the county director of planning, housing and zoning, reported the judge’s decision at the Kent County Commissioners’ meeting Tuesday.
In the 50-page opinion, Judge Dennis Sober wrote, “I find the evidence in support of the granting of a (Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity) falls short of proving that the Project meets the standard of Public Convenience and Necessity. I find that the weight of the evidence pertaining to the location of the Project is more negative than positive in its persuasive value of creating benefits to (Kent County) and Maryland.”
Sober said the testimony of witnesses from Keep Kent Scenic, a group formed to oppose the project, and the county government was more persuasive than those of the applicant, Apex Clean Energy of Charlottesville, Va. Opponents of the project cited the loss of farmland from crop production and the negative effect of the project on the viewscape and historic sites in the vicinity as reasons to deny the application.
Also, Sober wrote, the staff of the Maryland Public Service Commission “under-valued the importance of the opposition of the local government.” He said the county’s opposition was based on “a reasonable application of land use policies” that are based on local knowledge and experience.
Sober wrote, “Local control over the amount, location, and type of development must be respected by the PSC when there is no weight of evidence of need or benefit to outweigh the local opposition. The weight of the evidence of harm being caused, if the project is built, was significant and was a major factor in my decision to deny the application.”
Moredock said the decision leaves Apex free to seek approval for another site in the county. Also, she said, the judge reconfirmed the authority of the PSC to preempt local zoning if a project meets the standard of public necessity.
Commission President William Pickrum said the General Assembly is expected to consider legislation addressing the PSC’s preemption of local zoning. However, he said, a bill being drafted by the Maryland Association of Counties may not be strong enough to protect rural counties. “The PSC doesn’t want to give up power,” he said.
The Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, as Keep Kent Scenic is now known, said in a statement after Sober’s ruling, “KCPA’s Board of Directors is extremely appreciative of the leadership that the Kent County Commissioners and the Kent County Department of Planning and Zoning took in defending local zoning and of the support provided by the Office of the People’s Council. This ruling signals that large industrial energy projects, whether renewables or otherwise, must respect the basic policy decisions made by Maryland counties to designate areas within the County that are unsuitable for large scale industrial projects while providing ample alternative space for such projects.”
The statement continued, “We hope to work with other stakeholders going forward to make sure that renewable energy projects proceed in Maryland in a way that uses brownfield, landfill, and Superfund-sites rather than productive farmland and that Local Land Use Ordinances, where thoughtfully crafted, are respected.”
Apex released the following statement in response to Sober’s ruling: “Though we’re disappointed with the Proposed Order, we still believe Mills Branch Solar is a great project for Kent County and Maryland. Solar energy is good for the economy and good for the environment. This project can provide enough energy to power 10,000 homes, while offering local economic benefits and cutting harmful emissions. We appreciate the letters of support that have been submitted by over 100 Kent County residents, and we appreciate the unanimous support of the neighbors adjacent to the project. We believe that advancing Maryland’s progress toward its renewable energy goals has many benefits, and we’re currently reviewing our options and will provide more information when the time is appropriate.”
The company has until Feb. 10 to file an appeal of the order.
In Other Business:
• Moredock reported that another solar power project, Morgnec Road Solar, has applied for a CPCN.
The project is to be built on acreage just outside Chestertown, known as the Clark farm. The site is also in the right-of-way of a boulevard that would feed a proposed second Chester River bridge.
Moredock said she has met with representatives of the PSC and the Chestertown government to discuss the project. She said there is a preliminary evidentiary hearing on the application Jan. 21 in Baltimore. Parties seeking to intervene in the case must file by that date, she said.
The commissioners voted to intervene in the case.
• Jamie Williams, the county’s economic development coordinator, gave an update on projects her office is working on. Among them was the possibility of a “hot desk” office facility for startup businesses that don’t need full-time offices. She said the model was a good fit for Kent County, and could serve to attract new business or help existing ones become more effective.
Williams said the county’s Economic Development Commission discussed the project with Mike Thielke of the Eastern Shore Entrepreneurship Center, who has developed similar projects elsewhere on the Shore.
She said the county’s role would be to rent the space and pay the utilities, while ESEC would provide computers, furniture and other equipment. She said she had identified a couple of suitable sites for the project.
Commissioner Ron Fithian said, “Get us some numbers and we can start talking.”
• The commissioners reappointed Kim Kohl and Joe Hickman to the county planning commission for five-year terms.