After about a dozen Walkersville residents spoke at a public hearing Wednesday night, the Frederick County Planning Commission unanimously recommended the denial for rezoning about 151 acres of agricultural land for a $17.2 million solar energy site.
The Whitmore/Biggs Ford Solar Center, proposed at the northwest corner of Biggs Ford and Dublin roads in Walkersville, was presented to the commission by Ryan Gilchrist, a Coronal Energy project developer, and Noel Manalo, a land use attorney from Miles and Stockbridge.
In that presentation, they acknowledged that the proposal failed to meet multiple aspects of the county’s current solar ordinance — including the fact the property is composed of 100 percent prime farmland soils, and the project footprint exceeds the 10 percent threshold of tillable acreage.
That footprint is 96.7 acres out of 137.6 tillable acres, according to the proposal and the county planning staff’s presentation.
Manalo and Gilchrist, however, argued that the benefits of clean energy align with the state’s mission to create more green energy. In his presentation, Gilchrist said the project would create 100 to 150 construction jobs and generate $4.585 million in local tax revenue over the life of the project, or 35 years. It would also power 3,000 homes annually, he added.
But many Walkersville residents who spoke at Wednesday’s hearing expressed concerns that the solar project would decrease property values in the area, and they wanted to preserve the area’s agricultural land.
Michael Goldsmith, one of those residents, said that if that agricultural land is unused for crops or other similar uses for 35 years, it would be a loss for the county.
“I own a farm in Thurmont. I’ve got 32 acres,” Goldsmith said. “If I let that land sit for 10 years, it’s totally unusable ... the land being 35 years with solar panels on it, it’s just detrimental to the county and the soil.”
Bonnie Volovar argued that the Biggs Ford project sits on some of the “most fertile farmland” in the county, and will produce nothing over the lifetime of the project.
“Why not put these arrays on land not suitable for agriculture?” Volovar said. “I live directly behind that farm. My husband and I bought our property, partly because of the beauty of that pastoral scene. We love to watch the seasons and the crops changing.”
Mitch Brannen, son-in-law of the farm’s owner, Ralph Whitmore, told the commission the Whitmore family wants to farm the land once the solar panels run out of life.
Brannen added that Whitmore has been approached by developers several times about developing the land, which could put more stress on nearby roads and schools.
“My father-in-law is completely anti-growth,” Brannen said. “He has been approached at least three times in the last 20 years for this to be bought by speculators to put housing on it. ... And he’s denied them each time.”
Commissioners, right before they voted to deny the rezoning of the 151 acres, acknowledged that the ordinance was restrictive. Along with the denial, they unanimously approved a motion to recommend that the County Council review the county’s current solar ordinance.
“Right now, [the ordinance is] too limiting. And at the same time, not detailed enough ... everybody that talked tonight was right, including the applicant and the people here,” commission Chair Bob White said after the meeting. “It’s the right idea in the wrong place, and the council needs to find a way to resolve this.”
Gilchrist agreed that the solar ordinance should be reviewed, and said Coronal Energy representatives would be happy to help provide the solar industry’s opinion on it.
Coronal Energy will continue to develop throughout Maryland because of support from state officials, Gilchrist added.
“It’s going to open up opportunities all over the state,” he said of that support. “And I’m worried with the ordinance the way it is, that Frederick County is going to be left behind.”