ANNAPOLIS – A bill in front of the state legislature that would give Kent County commissioners approval power over a proposed large-scale wind turbine project near Kennedyville was heard in the Senate Finance Committee Tuesday, April 7.
The project, called Mills Branch Wind by developer Apex Clean Energy, has seen growing opposition from Kent County residents recently.
“When you sit down at the committee table and testify with the full Kent Commission, former Congressman (Wayne) Gilchrest, and the President of Washington College, it sends a powerful message to the committee,” Hershey said. “In addition, the committee noticed the presence of the close to 100 Kent residents in the gallery.”
Apex plans to build anywhere from 30 to 50 wind turbines expected to be at least 500 feet tall, spread out over several farms in the center of the county between state routes 213 and 291.
But residents of Kent County have expressed a multitude of concerns over the potential wind turbines. Some of the concerns expressed Tuesday mostly related to changing the character of a county proud of and revered for its rural nature.
People also expressed concern over the amount of work thus far the county has done to develop its comprehensive plan and what the turbines would do to the county’s property values, with its many historic landmarks and properties.
Supporters of Hershey’s bill suggest that property values will decline if Apex’s project is allowed, citing factors like noise from the turbines, and health effects they say could result from the turbines. One of their concerns is that flickering (when sunlight flickers due to a rotating object) could potentially cause sensory health issues like seizures.
Hershey, who said Apex’s project would span “thousands of acres” in scenic Kent County, put in a bill late in session that would not allow the project to move forward without the approval of the Kent County commissioners.
Hershey asked the Senate committee whether the current Public Service Commission Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity process – which is currently the avenue the project must take to get approval – pays enough attention to the local concerns of counties.
At the Senate hearing Tuesday, many supporters of Hershey’s bill, including all of the current Kent County commissioners, questioned whether Apex’s project was the right fit for the county.
“It’s a matter of size and scope when it comes to this particular project in our county,” said Kent County Commission President William Pickrum.
Pickrum argued the project scope was too large for Kent County, a county with 20,000 citizens and much of the land either in preservation or holding some historic value.
Commissioner Ron Fithian said that it was locally decided years ago how the county was to be laid out. With some of the strictest zoning ordinances in the state, Fithian said the county is looked at as a “model county” when it comes to how it handles smart growth and keeping its countrysides wide open.
“To allow not only Apex, but for anyone to come in to Kent County and just disregard all the hard work, money and time that all the people of Kent County have spent over the years, to disregard that and go as they see fit would not only be a slap in the face to the three of us commissioners and Sen. Heshey, but certainly all the people that have come before,” Fithian said Tuesday.
Kent County commissioners are not against green energy projects, they just want to have a say on the project, according to multiple testimonies at Tuesday’s Senate hearing, and for projects to “abide by Kent County’s rules,” as Fithian said.
Kent County currently allows up to a 120-foot wind turbine to be built for personal use, not for turbines of the scale planned by Apex that have the potential to be a contributor to Maryland’s Renewable Energy Portfolio.
Kent County is also No. 1, when it comes to green energy-per population ratio in the state, Kent County Commissioner Bill Short said.
Hershey’s bill is being supported by a large number of Kent County citizens, including former Congressman Wayne Gilchrest, who is the current director of the Sassafras Environmental Education Center.
Gilchrest echoed much of what the county’s current commissioners said at the hearing Tuesday, that Kent County’s citizens just want to try and do what’s best for Kent County, considering the huge effort it has already undertaken to get as far as it has in planning and zoning.
Gilchrest said Kent County has integrated the “integrity of its people” so that it looks to the future for their benefit.
“When (commissioners) talk about pursuing a policy that sets a good example for the rest of the state, provides a safe place that’s environmentally clean for its community, Kent County knows how to do that,” Gilchrest said to the Senate committee Tuesday.
“What Sen. Hershey is asking you to do today is to trust the integrity of Kent County which has made right decisions year after year after year to give them the authority to make the decision on this project,” he said.
“I think what we have to decide is what is the best use or the best renewable energy product that fits within a certain county or jurisdiction,” Hershey said. “You’re not going to see utility-scale wind turbines in Baltimore City, so maybe they look at a different option in what’s more feasible in that county.”
Opponents of Hershey’s bill argued about what kind of precedent the bill would set, giving counties what they described as a veto power over projects of this nature.
But Hershey said passage of his bill does not mean commissioners will simply vote against Apex’s project, but that the commissioners should have a bigger seat at the table than it currently does in the decision-making process.
J. Joseph “Max” Curran, with Venable LLP who used to sit on the Public Service Commission, said the commission must consider local concerns before it makes a final decision.
“Ultimately, the legislature and the Maryland Court of Appeals made the wise decision that local governments … while they play an important advisory role in the CPCN (Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity) process should not be making a decisional role in that,” Curran said.
Curran said that whenever a project like Apex’s is proposed, in his experience, there is a very well organized constituency that is opposed to the project.
Eastern Region Director for the American Wind Energy Association Andrew Gohn said Hershey’s bill could put the Kent County Commissioners in a position to veto at the last minute a developer’s project after they could have already made a significant investment in the project. That could prevent other companies from seeking development of major energy projects in Maryland, Gohn said.
“Senate Bill 938 (Hershey’s bill) would be an abrupt, last minute policy shift that would chill future investment and create an unfavorable business environment for clean energy industries that are creating jobs and economic development in Maryland,” Gohn said, urging Senators to vote against the bill in order to “continue advancing the progress that Maryland has made on the deployment of clean energy.”
However, Hershey said that in Somerset County, where a developer was moving forward on a different wind turbine project, the county commissioners supported the project.
Hershey told the Senate committee that legislators have to re-evaluate the role local governments play in the Public Service Commission’s CPCN process, as it’s an issue that has come up multiple times in the General Assembly.
“Whenever a wind project, like Mills Branch, is announced there has been strong public opposition. An approval process that does not take more consideration of the local interest in the project must be flawed,” Hershey said. “These projects may be appropriate in the wide open spaces of Midwest states, but it clearly doesn’t fit in Kent County and certainly not with the approval of the local officials.”
Hershey said that the committee members empathized with Kent’s residents and their desire to keep the county pristine and rural, and that senators got a better understanding of how Kent residents value the county’s landscape and why they would oppose such a project.
The legislative session ends on Monday, April 13, so the bill would have to be passed before then.
To pass, the bill would have to get through the Senate committee, through Senate floor debates and votes, then get sent through the House for the same process. Even if House members don’t make any changes to the legislation and pass it the way it’s sent to them – if changes are made it would get sent back to the Senate again – it’s a tight schedule for any bill in the General Assembly.
Hershey said he’ll “continue to discuss the issue with committee members to ensure we have enough support to get it out of committee and onto the Senate floor.”
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