Distinctly separate agendas with a shared goal have teamed the branch of the federal government in charge of national defense with a physician serving the rural Lower Shore.
The U.S. Department of Defense and Dr. Mary Fleury, a Somerset resident with a practice in Pocomoke City, have taken visibly bold stands for different reasons against a proposed industrial wind farm in southwest Somerset County, pitting them by default on the same side of the controversial issue that some elected officials say has divided the poor county and deepened the notch of uncertainty around the prospect of wind energy as a major industry for the farming region.
The latest uproar over the proposal by energy firm Pioneer Green to erect at least 25, 575-foot tall turbines across thousands of acres of farmland in the Westover region even divided Somerset County Commissioners this week who split in a vote over whether to delay discussions on the proposal until after more federal input.
The Defense Department has held that towering turbines in Somerset, across the Chesapeake Bay from the Patuxent River Naval Air Station would interfere with military radar-testing. Two days after the county Planning and Zoning Commission approved controversial Somerset industrial wind provisions, Deputy Defense Secretary Robert Work put the federal agency’s opposition in writing to the Federal Aviation Administration.
The same day, Fleury, the chairwoman of the Somerset County Planning and Zoning Commission, quit abruptly, citing dismay over the panel majority’s passage of provisions she warned posed potential “health hazards connected with turbines, especially those greater than 400 feet.”
Somerset County Commissioners, digesting Work’s letter and Fleury’s resignation, failed to muster a majority to delay the wind measure until the FAA weighs in.
Fleury, who is also the county’s deputy health officer, told commissioners in her resignation letter that she had hoped her eight years on the planning board would have helped further her mission to “transform Somerset County into the healthiest county in Maryland.”
Instead, Fleury and critics on the planning board often bickered over proposed turbine height, distance from structures and what some called questionable reports, pro or con, from outside sources.
“My presence on the board has been ineffectual in persuading my fellow board members of potential health hazards connected with turbines…,” her resignation letter read.
Work’s letter, though, casts doubt over whether the county ever erects industrial-scale turbines that promise to generate millions of dollars in tax revenue over time, some commissioners said. On Wednesday, a 2-2 vote by commissioners means that the proposed turbine provisions will move forward , but not necessarily for a final vote.
County Commissioners President Rex Simpkins cast a nay vote to delay the turbine measure, saying preferred scrapping the entire project believing that the FAA would side with the Department of Defense and in the end, the federal government would have its way.
“I’m enough of a realist to know that if the Department of Defense is not satisfied, it is not going to allow it to happen,” Simpkins said. “Basically, the department is saying that the wind project would be a detriment to national defense because of Patuxent River.”
Commissioners Randy Laird and Craig Mathies voted to delay discussions that could lead to an adoption of rules and regulations for industrial-scale wind operations. Laird said after the meeting he had hope that sides could work out an agreement.
“What the county wants to do is keep farther away from structures, but we don’t want to kill the project,” Laird said, referring to proposed turbine height and setback ratios. “If they are too far back, there would not be enough land to move them.”
Commissioner Charles Fisher joined Simpkins in the nay vote after his motion failed to scrap the turbine measure because it was “dividing the county.”
Laird recalled the proposed Eastern Correctional Institution, that was eventually built more than two decades ago in Westover, created an uproar.
“It’s controversial, but I’m not saying it is dividing the county in half,” Laird said of tensions over turbines. “Some are for turbines, some are not. The ECI building was more controversial.”
Commissioner Jerry Boston abstained from the vote, saying that his son-in-law’s “potential interest” in leasing land near the county landfill to Pioneer Green to erect turbines raises questions of ethics.
“My lawyer, because of the ethics question, advised me to not vote on it,” Boston said.
He was referring to Doug Reynolds of Reynolds Excavating whose name is on a list of landowners in the Westover region signed on to lease agricultural land to Pioneer Green for turbines.
Members of the grass roots Safe for Somerset, a critic of industrial wind turbines, recently posed questions of ethics to County Commissioners and Planning and Zoning members. Through an attorney, the group listed names of property owners, including Boston’s son-in-law, who have leases with Pioneer Green on their land.
Wind farm critic Tammy Truitt attended the meeting, saying that a delay on the wind discussion wouldn’t change the need for safeguards and property protections.
“My reaction is disappointment,” Truitt said. “Our County Commissioners had an opportunity to kill the project today.”
Somerset Commissioners are scheduled to receive the Planning and Zoning recommended wind turbine provision at its Nov. 18 meeting, Simpkins said.
Meanwhile on Thursday, the Planning and Zoning board named member Robert Fitzgerald to replace Fleury. The group also seated its newest member, Princess Anne resident James Mullen.