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Hearings start next week for 370-acre solar farm  

The project is meeting with resistance from the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, also known as Keep Kent Scenic. The organization formed in response to Apex’s original plans for a utility-scale wind farm in the same area. Apex switched to solar in response to the blowback over the wind farm proposal.

Credit:  By DANIEL DIVILIO | The Star Democrat | June 16, 2016 | www.stardem.com ~~

CHESTERTOWN – Hearings start June 21 on the Mills Branch Solar project slated for the Chesterville area.

Parent company Apex Clean Energy is seeking a required Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity from the Maryland Public Service Commission to build a 60-megawatt solar farm on more than 300 acres, about 130 acres of which, according to tax records, Mills Branch Solar LLC purchased in March.

The PSC is holding a public hearing at 6 p.m. Tuesday, June 21, at the Kent County Public Library in Chestertown. Electronic copies of public comments may be submitted to www.psc.state.md.us/efile.

The public hearing will be followed by an evidentiary hearing commencing at 10 a.m. the following day in the Kent County Commissioners’ hearing room at 400 High St., Chestertown. The evidentiary hearing may run several days as necessary.

The Maryland Department of Natural Resources Power Plant Research Program acts as a sort of clearing house for reviewing proposed generation facilities. On May 26, it released a draft of its environmental review of the Mills Branch Solar project.

The report noted no potential issues with air quality, endangered species, electromagnetic fields, or increased noise or traffic, other than during construction.

While no trees are being cleared from the site, much of which comprises farm fields, the summary states that Mills Branch Solar has calculated it must complete 67 acres worth of Forest Conservation Act afforestation mitigation. The PPRP also is asking that Mills Branch Solar submit a more detailed landscaping plan to mitigate views from adjacent roads and properties.

The project is meeting with resistance from the Kent Conservation and Preservation Alliance, also known as Keep Kent Scenic. The organization formed in response to Apex’s original plans for a utility-scale wind farm in the same area. Apex switched to solar in response to the blowback over the wind farm proposal.

The local opposition to the solar farm centers around Kent County’s historical agriculture industry. Some are concerned about the effects of removing 370 acres from production.

“As I have seen in communities across the region, the loss of critical mass of agricultural land will cause the loss of the industry viability as vendors and farmers compete for declining land availability,” said Francis J. Hickman, a Kent County farm consultant, in testimony on behalf of Keep Kent Scenic.

Using “rough calculations,” Hickman estimates the local economy will suffer a $3.33 million economic loss over 20 years of operation if Mills Branch Solar goes forward.

PPRP consultant Peter Hall filed testimony estimating farm production at the site yields $1,480 per acre, while the value of solar generation is estimated at $19,600 per acre.

“The higher output value associated with the Project relative to agricultural production indicates that higher tax revenues would accrue to the State and County when acreage is used for solar production rather than agricultural production. This in turn suggest that there are positive benefits to the State and County associated with the solar project,” Hall said.

Apex submitted a 34-page study on the economic effects of Mills Branch Solar.

Tyson Utt, Apex’s Mid-Atlantic director of development, summarized the findings in PSC testimony. He said the study shows the economic benefits of the project, while factoring in the losses due to “temporarily removing the project site from agricultural use.”

“Over the 30-year project life, Mills Branch Solar will provide a net benefit (economic contribution from Mills Branch Solar minus economic loss from reduced agricultural production) of $2.4 million in labor income, $5.2 million in economic output, and $2.5 million in state and local tax revenues in Kent County,” Utt said.

The study shows Kent County could expect property tax revenues for the site to increase from $2,623 to $44,457 a year.

“Because of the nature of solar development as an interim use, it is compatible with the goal of having agriculture remain the permanent preferred land use in Kent County,” Utt said.

The properties Mills Branch Solar owns and plans to lease are in the Agricultural Zoning District, where a solar project of this size is prohibited in the county land use ordinance.

The Kent County officials have joined residents in arguing that the county land use ordinance be upheld by the state. The state and Mills Branch Solar so far have effectively argued that the PSC may supersede local zoning.

Keep Kent Scenic organizer Janet Christensen-Lewis submitted testimony regarding the county’s Renewable Energy Task Force. She said the task force studied issues of zoning and appropriate renewable energy generation.

“The descriptive language about agricultural development of solar is specific to on-farm use, which eliminates the interpretation that it could be for utility scale. This work represents a compromise between the interest in developing renewable energy and preserving the culture and rural qualities of Kent County. The Mills Branch Solar project ignores these carefully developed compromises and seeks to superimpose on Kent County a project that is inconsistent with the final work product of the RETF as adopted by Kent County,” Christensen-Lewis said.

In his testimony, Utt speaks about concerns that allowing a project like Mills Branch Solar in will open the door for similar projects. He said the effect would be just the opposite because of the limited amount of transmission line capacity available here.

“The Project, once constructed, would consume a significant portion of the capacity available in the existing infrastructure serving Kent County. Once the capacity is consumed, line upgrades will be required to incorporate further generation. These upgrades can be very costly, in the tens of millions of dollars, or more, with the cost being borne by the developer of the generation,” Utt said.

To ensure the land is returned to farm production after Mills Branch Solar reaches the end of its useful life, the PPRP is recommending Apex place the property in an agricultural easement.

Utt balked at the suggestion, stating the process of obtaining an easement is competitive and could be protracted. He said the county’s zoning will likely determine the land’s future use after Mills Branch Solar is decommissioned.

“The parcel will either remain zoned AZD, in which case at the conclusion of the Project life it will be situated just as it is today, or will be rezoned by the County, which would reflect a determination by the County that it is not necessary to keep the parcel in an agricultural zone. Either way, no appropriate purpose is served by the easement,” Utt said.

All documents filed with PSC relating to Mills Branch Solar may be found on the agency’s website. Search for Case No. 9411.

Source:  By DANIEL DIVILIO | The Star Democrat | June 16, 2016 | www.stardem.com

This article is the work of the source indicated. Any opinions expressed in it are not necessarily those of National Wind Watch.

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