KCFB, college join protest against turbine project

Staff Writer

CHESTERTOWN, Md. (April 7, 2015) — Two Kent County institutions — its Farm Bureau and Washington College — publicly criticized last week a large alternative energy project that would construct up to 35 wind turbines about 500 feet tall on 5,000 acres of open farmland within the county.
The Farm Bureau opposed Apex Clean Energy’s wind turbine project at its Wednesday, April 1 meeting, joining a chorus of local residents and government officials who say the project ignores county land use restrictions and mars the region’s rural character.
“We think it will fundamentally and forever change the scenic beauty of our county,” Farm Bureau President Jennifer Debnam said.
Both the Farm Bureau and the college said they support a bill by state Sen. Stephen Hershey Jr., R-District 36, that would prohibit the state’s public utility regulatory agency, the Public Service Commission, from granting approval to the project before the county approves it.
Washington College interim President Jay Griswold sent an email to the college community March 31 detailing his concerns that the county’s authority could be bypassed to get the project approval.
“At Washington College, we value ‘unhurried conversations’ where all sides of an issue can be explored and discussed before a decision is made,” he said. “Apex Clean Energy will short-circuit the opportunity for conversations with local residents.”
Griswold also said he sent a letter voicing the college’s concerns to state Senate President Mike Miller, House Speaker Mike Busch and Gov. Larry Hogan.
Local opposition to the turbine project has been growing in recent weeks. A meeting held by a new advocacy group, Keep Kent Scenic, attracted a standing room-only audience at the public library in Chestertown late last month. Kent County’s board of commissioners have also said they support Hershey’s bill. The county prohibits turbines of the size Apex hopes to build.
Many details about Apex’s Mills Branch Wind project have yet to be determined, according to the company’s website. But as it stands, about 25-35 turbines would stretch over six miles from downtown Chestertown and about two and a half miles from Kennedyville and Galena. It would eventually be capable of generating 100 megawatts of energy, enough to power up to 30,000 homes each year.
The company also claims the project would create 70-100 temporary construction jobs and six to eight permanent, local jobs after it went online. It would also provide income for those farm owners who decide to allow the construction of turbines or transmission equipment on their land.
“We understand wind energy is new to Kent County, but there are over 1,000 wind projects operating in the U.S. across 39 states, providing substantial economic development in agricultural communities similar to Kent County,” said Dahvi Wilson, an Apex spokesperson, in an e-mail to The Delmarva Farmer. “This project is expected to offset the equivalent carbon emissions of over 20,000 cars annually… and generating enough clean, renewable electricity to satisfy the annual electricity demand of all the homes in Kent County.”
Griswold’s email urged college supporters to join local residents at a Senate Finance Committee hearing on the Hershey bill Tuesday, April 7. Among the college’s concerns: what affect the turbines would have on migratory waterfowl and how the skyscraper-tall turbines would “despoil” the county’s scenic landscape.
“Things are moving quickly as this year’s legislative session adjourns on Monday, April [13],” Griswold said. “If the legislation does not pass both houses by that date, it may not be possible to slow this process down to permit more time for discussion of local concerns, study of the potential impact on waterfowl, and the harm this could cause to the scenic beauty of Kent County. Time is of the essence in all of these activities.”
Apex Clean Energy, a Charlottesville, Va., company, has already secured 13 leases totaling about 3,750 acres of farmland — enough to build the project though the company anticipates additional participation, Wilson said. Farmers seem to fall on both sides of the issue, and residents and local government officials speaking against the project have repeatedly said they seek not to criticize farmers who have signed leases with Apex, only the company itself. The Farm Bureau, a supporter of personal property rights, agrees, Debnam said.
“This position we’ve taken in no way would diminish our respect for members of our organization” who have signed leases with Apex, she said.
The company approached the family of farmer Bill Langenfelder, who grows grain and raises hogs on 500 acres in the area where the turbines could be constructed. If everything goes according to Apex’s plan, Langenfelder, said he would likely see turbines stretch toward the horizon on both sides of his farm. But he and his family wasn’t interested in signing a lease with the company, he said.
“For what they’re offering to pay to put a wind tower on your property and what they’re asking for in return, it’s really not that attractive,” he said. “I’m sure there are [other farmers] you could look up that are the opposite.”
Apex said it keeps details about what it offers landowners confidential, but Wilson said every landowner who signs a lease receives a minimum guaranteed lease payment each year. Those who ultimately host turbines and/or transmission equipment receive additional compensation. Landowners with a turbine receive a percentage of royalties on energy produced.
“Hosting a wind turbine on a farm is a compatible use of the land and a way to diversify the revenue on a farm, all while taking minimal cropland out of production,” Wilson said.
Apex also supported a bill passed in Maryland last year that allowed the construction of turbines on land under state agriculture land preservation easements.
The bill eased restrictions for other forms of renewable energy as well, including wind, solar, methane from anaerobic decomposition and others, Wilson said.
It simply limits the amount of land dedicated to those activities to the lesser of 5 percent of the land or five acres.
Each turbine in the Apex project typically requires less than a half acre, the company’s website said.
But the county downgraded its zoning more than a decade ago to limit development and preserve its rural character, said Joe Hickman, who manages several farms across the county. A miles-long chain of wind turbines is the type of industrial-sized activity those zoning changes sought to prohibit, he said.
“I could give you 50 reasons” why I don’t support the project, Hickman said. “In essence we said our farmland is for farming and not for other uses. … We’re very proud of our local zoning.”
Apex’s Mills Branch website also includes various reports and studies that say wind farms have little impact on property values and cites The Audubon Society’s endorsement of wind farms as an alternative energy solution that can work without significantly harming wildlife.
Residents’ concerns about health effects related to sound and flickering shadows from the turbines are also addressed.
Apex said it remains in the very early phases of its Kent County project and does not expect construction would start — if it’s ever approved — until next year.
Apex isn’t alone in chasing investments in wind power on the Eastern Shore. Pioneer Green Energy, an Austin, Texas, company, bailed out of a 150-megawatt project called the Great Bay Wind Energy Center in Somerset County late last month.
The company told the county’s board of commissioners in a letter that one of its affiliate companies, Pioneer Green Solar, planned to come back to the county with an unrelated solar energy plan.
A company development manager declined to speak in detail about the project last week.
“We are hopeful that that their effort at bringing investment dollars, jobs and tax base to Somerset County will succeed where our efforts have failed and wish you the best of luck in hopefully seeing the benefit of such investment in the near future and for years to come,” the letter said.