Blown away: Wind farms were supposed to be in Somerset County, but a conflict with St. Mary’s County changed that
MARION STATION – Like many people in Somerset County, retired teachers Rick and Mary Ann Peterman are anxiously waiting to see what decision Gov. Martin O’Malley will make on a bill that would delay the start of a large-scale wind farm in the county. The project would allow local farmers to diversify by renting out part of their land and keep the properties in their families, said Mary Ann Peterman, whose family has farmed the land in Marion Station for generations.
“We’d like to keep the farm for our kids and grandkids,” she said. “The income will help them keep it.”
The fate of the proposed wind farm – which could generate nearly $3 million in annual tax revenue to one of Maryland’s poorest counties – now lies in O’Malley’s hands.
House Bill 1168 awaits either his signature or his veto. A spokeswoman for the governor said it was unclear if it would be included in a bill-signing scheduled for Monday morning, and O’Malley – who was in favor of the wind farm – has yet to announce his decision.
The bill was introduced in January by the Southern Maryland Delegation, whose members fear the large-scale turbines planned for Somerset County will interfere with radar systems in St. Mary’s County at the Naval Air Station Patuxent River – a huge employer in the area that officials fear may relocate if the turbines are built.
Somerset County officials and members of the Eastern Shore Delegation have argued that developers of the wind farm were working with Pax River and the Navy to resolve issues and were close to signing an agreement. Additionally, the small, rural county needs the boost from additional tax revenues and jobs.
Now two areas of the state that normally are allies in the Legislature have suddenly found themselves at odds.
O’Malley’s green initiative
During the summer of 2010, representatives of Austin, Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy arrived in Somerset County and began meeting with land owners.
The Petermans, who own a 104-acre farm, said they and a few others from Somerset County were invited to Texas, where they visited a wind farm on the Gulf Coast and talked to a farmer who leases some of his land to the company.
“We were favorably impressed with what we saw down there,” Rick Peterman said.
Additionally, the Petermans said they have seen successful commercial wind operations in their travels through Australia, Hungary, Denmark and Canada.
By the end of the year, the Petermans had signed a contract for two turbines on the farm – the number has since been scaled back to one – with a small stipend paid to them during the development phase and more to come once the turbine goes online.
Pioneer Green has since acquired agreements with 200 landowners in the county and invested about $4 million so far, said Adam Cohen, company vice president.
Since the beginning, the company has worked with the Maryland Energy Administration, which has a goal of achieving 20 percent of the state’s power through renewable sources by 2022, including solar, wind, geothermal heating and cooling and bioenergy.
Cohen said if the Somerset County wind farm project is ended, it also will effectively end the governor’s green initiative.
“Clean energy will be gone and O’Malley’s legacy is hollowed out,” he said.
Both sides of the issue make compelling arguments about how the wind farm might affect the economies on both sides of the Chesapeake Bay.
Rex Simpkins, president of the Somerset County Commissioners, said he and other officials see the wind farm project as a way to kickstart the economy, which still hasn’t recovered from the recession.
“If we don’t come up with something, we’re going to be in trouble,” he said.
County officials were encouraged by a study conducted in 2012 by the Jacob France Institute at the University of Baltimore which showed a proposed wind farm could bring hundreds of jobs and millions of dollars to Somerset County.
Among the findings was that, once built, the project will ultimately generate $3.4 million in additional tax revenues per year at the state and local government levels, and $2.9 million within Somerset County.
During the construction phase, it is expected to generate 529 jobs, add $13.2 million to labor income and generate a total of $66.8 million in additional economic activity.
The ongoing operation and maintenance phase of the project will create 14.6 long-term jobs in Somerset County, add $405,572 to labor income and increase economic activity by $1.8 million in the initial year of operations. Maintenance requirements will increase as the equipment ages, so these numbers are likely to increase, as well.
On the other side of the bay, Del. John L. Bohanan Jr., D-29B-St. Mary’s, said there are 22,000 jobs at stake in his district.
The first phase of a study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology indicates wind turbines in Somerset County could create interference with the radar systems at Pax River.
The bill that was passed by the General Assembly would delay construction until July 1, 2015, after MIT completes its study, he said.
“We’ll know a lot better by then whether we have a problem,” he said.
The state has conducted numerous studies on other issues, including fracking in Western Maryland, and the majority of the General Assembly thought it was prudent to know all the facts about the proposed wind farm, Bohanan said.
Southern Maryland officials have been concerned that some operations at Pax River could move to the West Coast, where there would be less interference to the radar systems.
“We could potentially lose a lot of jobs,” he said. “It’s a very serious issue for us, and the Legislature agreed.”
Pressure to veto
Since the bill passed in April, O’Malley has been under pressure to veto it by environmental and renewable energy groups, newspaper editorial writers, Eastern Shore officials and others.
“I want it vetoed, and others around the state are deeply concerned about it,” said state Sen. James N. Mathias Jr., D-38, who represents Somerset County.
During the past four years, Pioneer Green has done its due diligence, invested millions of dollars and signed contracts with property owners, only to have the bill introduced at the 11th hour. “It’s wholly unfair to shut the door in their face,” Mathias said.
He and others argued there are already protections in place, including approvals from a Department of Defense clearinghouse and the Maryland Public Service Commission, before the wind farm could be built.
“But against the best efforts of me, the bill passed,” he said.
Cohen of Pioneer Green said thousands of letters, emails and phone calls have been sent to the governor’s office from supporters of the wind farm, including state Comptroller Peter Franchot, the Sierra Club, the Tri-County Council, the Union of Concerned Scientists and Charles County Commissioner Ken Robinson.
If O’Malley vetoes the bill, there are likely enough members of the General Assembly to call a special session to override it, Bohanan said. A three-fifths vote of the elected membership in each house is necessary to override a veto, according to the Maryland General Assembly’s website.
Even if the governor does nothing, the bill will become law.
Simpkins said O’Malley faces a huge dilemma. On one hand, he needs to protect a major employer in the state, and on the other, he wants his green agenda to be a success.
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