Deal with solar company may allow Johnson to revive land

Associate Editor

TRACY’S LANDING, Md. (July 18, 2017) — When Otis Johnson steps outside the back door of his home and looks to the left, he sees about 13 acres of overgrown brush, an aging greenhouse and a barn.
It frustrates him, he said.
It used to be a working farm, and his family used to own it.
He’s hoping solar panels might save it.
Johnson’s home rests on about 60 acres leased to a farmer who rotates crops such as wheat and soybeans.
He’s an airplane mechanic at Joint Base Andrews outside Washington, D.C., so he’s not a farmer.
But when he looks across his property line and sees the plot of untended farmland his deceased father-in-law, Harrell Spruill, once owned, he dreams of getting it back and using it in the way Spruill intended: To educate Annapolis-area students about where their food comes from.
“He’s the one who is actually responsible for this being here. He bought this property 30 years ago with the intentions of getting it to this point,” Johnson said. “Actually, he anticipated this being a lot further along.”
OneEnergy Renewables, a Washington state-based energy company, wants to build a 19-acre solar panel operation on the land Johnson currently owns, one of three projects it has proposed in southern Anne Arundel County. They are part of a new statewide, three-year pilot program to open solar energy to low- and moderate-income customers.
OneEnergy’s projects in the county are being proposed through the Baltimore Gas and Electric Co., so if they were built, its customers would be able to subscribe to the program and see cost savings.
The project proposed for Johnson’s land would conceivably produce enough energy to power about 450 homes.
When the company stopped in nearby Lothian late last month to discuss its proposal with residents and local farmers, they met almost unified opposition.
Farmers frustrated by a recent influx of alternative energy companies scooping up agricultural land across the state protested the company’s plans, saying they would harm the area’s rich rural character.
OneEnergy representatives said their goal (and the state’s) was simple: To provide cheap, clean solar energy to residents who can’t afford it.
Eventually, the company called on Johnson at the meeting to offer an alternative viewpoint.
In his case, he said, OneEnergy Renewables wasn’t hurting agriculture. Revenue from the panel project could help reinvigorate it.
Spruill, who was born in 1924 and raised on a North Carolina farm, began teaching industrial arts in Anne Arundel County schools in the 1950s.
He purchased the nearby 13-acre plot in the late 1980s and turned it into an educational farm.
He partnered with Baltimore’s Sojourner-Douglass College to manage the farm program and bring county students — primarily from the Annapolis area — onto the farm where they learned to raise crops and vegetables, many of which were sold at markets in the county.
Spruill eventually turned the plot over the to college, which shut down after it lost its accreditation due to financial issues in 2015.
The farm has fallen into disrepair. Spruill died in 2012.
That land was supposed to revert back to Johnson’s family if the college stopped using it for agricultural purposes, Johnson said.
His family is working to make that happen now, he said.
If OneEnergy Renewables and BG&E move forward with the plan on Johnson’s property, he said he could see between $10,000 and $12,000 in energy revenue each year over the length of a 30-year contract.
It could be enough money to resurrect Spruill’s vision, he said.
Johnson said he’s looking at other potential partners such as the University of the District of Columbia to help manage a new educational farm program.
“My father-in-law was passionate about it,” he said. “I watched him actually put all this effort into acquiring it, managing it and offering it to an entity that he thought would keep the agricultural essence moving, and that has been a dream deferred at this point. … We want to make sure what he dreamed about still stays on point.”
It’s an important counterpoint to farmers and residents who argue against solar projects, he said, because that money can make a difference — even if it’s small.
His father-in-law made a difference.
“We want that opportunity to put it back the way it used to be,” he said. “A hundred kids would come here and two kids would like what they saw.
“That was a win-win situation for him. A hundred kids out of an element that they’re always accustomed to see something that they’ve never seen before, and out of that 100, two of them say, ‘Yeah, I’d like to do this.’”