August 27, 2014

Somerset board to review wind turbine project ordinance

Phil Davis, DelmarvaNow | August 26, 2014 |

The proposed wind turbine farm in Somerset County will be in the spotlight again over the next two weeks as the county planning board will review an ordinance adopted specifically to address wind energy in the county.

The proposed 50-turbine system headed by Pioneer Green Energy has been at the center of controversy in recent years, with alternative energy advocates and Eastern Shore representatives butting heads with legislators in Southern Maryland and in the nation’s capital.

The Planning Commission will be reviewing a 2 1/2-year-old ordinance addressing the development of wind turbines at a Thursday work session, according to the county’s planning director Gary Pusey.

The Somerset County Commissioners referred the ordinance back to the planning board for review to see “if it was still appropriate” in regards to the pending project, Pusey added.

There are a number of issues to review, said Pusey, including a section of the ordinance which would require each turbine be reviewed by the county’s Board of Zoning Appeals.

Following Thursday’s work session, the planning board will also hold an additional meeting on Sept. 4 meant to facilitate public comment on the matter, said Pusey.

Supporters of the project have pointed to the need to invest in alternative energy along with the perceived economic value of the project, which is estimated to produce $44.4 million in county tax revenue as well as additional royalties for local landowners involved in the project.

However, opponents point to concerns the turbines could affect testing operations performed at the Patuxent River Naval Air facility across the Chesapeake Bay in St. Mary’s County.

Earlier this month, a group of Eastern Shore legislators joined alternative energy advocates and Pioneer Green in opposing language introduced into a federal Defense Appropriations bill report by U.S. Sen. Barbara Mikulski, D-Md., meant to delay the project from moving forward.

At the heart of the matter is the height, location and operation of the system, which opponents say would interfere with the naval base’s ability to test its radar systems.

St. Mary’s County Commissioner Todd Morgan said that while Pioneer Green Energy has been in negotiation with the naval base on how to best handle the interference, the company hasn’t gone far enough in meeting the needs of the base.

Project advocates say preliminary results from a study conducted by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology suggest that if the wind turbines are shut off, the base’s testing would not be affected.

Morgan argues that the company could go further to meet the needs of the naval base, saying the base conducts a number of confidential and classified tests which could be at risk of being exposed by the turning off of the turbines.

He said that if the company were to lower their turbines, which are currently projected to be at least 500 feet tall, and reconsider the system’s location, they would not interfere with the naval base’s testing.

“If they would lower them, if they would move them out of the line of sight of the radar, nobody would care,” said Morgan. “I think the point we’re trying to make is that nobody is against the wind turbine as a whole, (but) the effect of the proposed tower on the radar systems.”

Mikulski echoed Morgan’s concerns in a statement earlier this month, saying that while she supports alternative energy solutions, she does not want the system to be assembled before the results of the full MIT study are released.

“… the Navy has commissioned a $2 million MIT study to make sure (the naval base’s) test range is not disrupted,” the statement read. “The study should be completed before next steps are taken. Better safe than sorry.”

Supporters counter that opponents like Mikulski and Morgan are shining a negative light on the state, one which shows businesses the state is not open to more alternative energy projects.

Senator Jim Mathias D-38-Worcester said any further delays on the project doesn’t show businesses that Maryland is “a place that we’ve invited you to go and do good business … where we don’t have government opposing us every step of the way.”

Morgan disputed claims that the project would bring any significant long-term economic benefit to the region outside of tax revenue.

He said he has yet to see a facility or company in the state which has the capability to take on such a project, requiring Pioneer Green Energy to go to out-of-state contractors to create and assemble the necessary materials.

“All you’re going to be doing is bringing in contractors from out-of-state,” said Morgan, adding once construction of the system is completed “you’re going to get 10 to 12 jobs out of this.”

Pioneer Green Energy’s Development Manager Paul Harris said that delays in the project could scare away investors, with the total cost looking to eclipse $200 million.

“I think we as a company, it’s harder and harder to legitimize our investment,” said Harris.

If You Go:

Where: Somerset County Office Complex

11916 Somerset Ave., Princess Anne. Md.

When: August 28, 6 p.m.

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