Several Walkersville residents continued to voice opposition to a proposed solar array near Walkersville at a Public Service Commission (PSC) public hearing Thursday night.
The hearing, held in front of Chief Public Law Utility Judge Ryan “Chuck” McLean at the Hampton Inn and Suites in Frederick, was the latest installment of a yearslong legal process involving the Whitmore/Biggs Ford Solar Center proposal, an attempt to rezone roughly 151 acres of agricultural land on Biggs Ford Road near Walkersville.
A few dozen people attended the hearing, the majority of whom testified against the project. Bonnie and Patrick Volovar live near the proposed array, and said they bought their house about 30 years ago because of the views, and wanted to protect prime agricultural farmland.
“I just think it’s immoral to plant solar panels, on highly productive [and] the best soil in Frederick County. ... Right now, I am saying don’t put this in my backyard,” Bonnie Volovar said.
Jan Sadowsky, another nearby resident, said he spends time studying the stars near his house. A solar array would create a heat island that would make it harder to do so, he said.
He also said he shared others’ concerns that the project would decrease the value of nearby homes.
“We don’t want to have that eyesore every time we have to drive in toward Walkersville,” Sandowsky said.
Not everyone, however, was opposed to the project. John Whitmore, son of Ralph Whitmore, owner of the farm, said a solar array would be better than residential development on the land.
“Frederick County is developing. ... Single-family residential housing is going to create much more of a NIMBY issue than what is occurring here,” Whitmore said. “It’s different than having a bunch of houses that have cars, and the infrastructure around that.”
Mitch Brannen, son-in-law of Ralph Whitmore, said a number of speculators and developers have approached the Whitmore family in the past several years.
“Every time they came and brought a truck full of money, Ralph said no,” Brannen said. “We’re trying to make sure this isn’t as populous.”
But several residents cited concerns about protecting farmland, along with precedent that the county had denied rezoning the project.
“This corridor is a very highly productive agricultural area,” said Andrew Toms, a dairy farmer who lives about half a mile from the proposed site. He added that he has owned farmland countywide, including near Urbana.
“I would rather farm 100 acres here than 200 acres down there,” Toms said.
The application was denied both by the county’s Planning Commission and Frederick County Council, but Whitmore/Biggs Ford Solar Center has submitted its case to the PSC to see if it can build the array.
A state Court of Appeals decision from earlier this year deemed the PSC the “ultimate decision-maker” concerning whether solar companies can construct solar arrays statewide.
The PSC regulates gas, electric, telephone, water, and sewage disposal companies, and has jurisdiction over electricity and suppliers, and construction of generating stations statewide.
Several senior state officials have also recommended denying a certificate of public convenience and necessity, or CPCN, to help approve the project. A letter stating that, dated Sept. 11, was signed by:
- Joseph Bartenfelder, Maryland’s secretary of agriculture.
- Kelly Schulz, secretary of commerce.
- Robert S. McCord, secretary of planning.
- Pete Rahn, secretary of transportation.
- Mary Beth Tung, director of the Energy Administration.
- Ben Grumbles, secretary of the environment.
- Jeannie Haddaway-Riccio, secretary of natural resources.
Robert A. Sadzinski, program manager of the Power Plant Research Program at the state’s Department of Natural Resources, helps review the CPCN licensing reviews for such solar arrays.
According to court documents, he testified that the solar array’s location in Walkersville’s Priority Preservation Area, its being on prime farmland and other factors were reasons why the array shouldn’t be built.
He also said that although the project would contribute to the state’s Renewable Energy Portfolio Standard goals — 50 percent renewable energy by 2030, including increasing the solar carve-out target to 14.5 percent by 2028 — it would contribute only .9 percent of that total.
“Although it would help to support the Maryland RPS, the project’s small contribution does not outweigh the substantive issues the reviewing State 10 agencies have identified with this project,” Sadzinski testified.
According to court records, all interested parties — which include Lincoln Energy, which acquired Coronal Energy in May, the former energy company proposing to build the array — must submit further testimony by Sept. 27.
Wendy Kearney, an assistant county attorney for Frederick County, said before the hearing that her office had concerns about that change so late in the process.
A evidentiary hearing, which McLean equated with a trial, will occur Oct. 8 and 10 in Baltimore. He will issue an opinion after that.