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Garrett County group researching renewable energy options with panel
By JONATHAN CRIBBS
OAKLAND, Md. (June 7, 2016) — Farmers and landowners in Garrett County were given an opportunity last month to get advice on partnering with renewable energy companies looking to sign leases for solar and wind energy projects in Western Maryland.
The county government held a tip session May 12 for landowners dealing with proposals from energy companies.
“I just wanted to make sure that our landowners are making informed decisions, that there aren’t any unintended consequences,” said Cheryl DeBerry, the natural resources specialist at Garrett County Economic Development.
Garrett County and the larger region have been dealing with interest from energy companies for more than a decade. Before the Great Recession, natural gas firms scoured the region to sign leases with farmers and landowners that proposed large signing bonuses.
Many of those deals collapsed during the recession, and the experience soured many farmers and landowners in the region on working with energy companies, farmers and officials said.
Among the questions landowners and farm operators were told to ask themselves before signing a lease for a renewable energy project on their land:
• Will the project affect my farm operations? Does the project raise agricultural preservation issues, and can it create issues such as direct soil/drainage damage?
• How long is the land tied up?
• What are the landowner’s obligations? With lenders, insurance and/or government programs?
• What are the compensation options? Are they negotiable? Can they be re-evaluated periodically? Is the power purchase agreement fixed or royalty-based? an
• Do I need legal advice to evaluate easements, options and covenants?
Because solar and wind power is much less lucrative, less money is involved, DeBerry said, leading to an easier relationship between farmers and renewable energy companies.
“So far, so good,” she said. “It’s a much different process, but we wanted to make sure people were being treated fairly in our area.”
Marshall Stacy is one of those people. Stacy, a Garrett County Christmas tree farmer, and several other landowners joined together to sign leases with a natural gas company looking to drill in the Allegheny Mountains.
At about $2,230 per acre, Stacy said his signing bonus was set to pay him nearly $750,000.
He made plans to set up a summer camp dedicated to the arts. His children would run it. Then the recession arrived, and the company backed out.
“Everything came to a screeching halt when the money disappeared,” he said.
Stacy’s lease agreement collapsed, and the gas companies essentially left during the Great Recession.
A standing statewide moratorium on fracking for natural gas ensures, at least in the short term, that no gas companies can try for the potentially 2-plus trillion cubic feet of recoverable gas resting beneath the region’s surface.
When solar energy companies first began showing up in Garrett County, rumors persisted that they were offering rich per-acre contracts.
But after learning they’re more likely around $300 to $600 per acre, Stacy said he’s less inclined to get involved. And that’s before he considers the relative cloudiness and the amount of snow inherent to the region.
“I don’t think it’s a very good match,” he said.
County Farm Bureau President Barry Bishoff also said he had a gas deal fall through at the onset of the recession. But he said he sees new interest for the renewable energy industry as an opportunity for farmers.
“I think it’s an opportunity to establish diversity in their income that’s completely independent from their farming operation,” he said. “We just want them to be well-informed. … If you’re going to sign any lease, get a lawyer and make sure you fully understand what you’re getting into.”
A meeting similar to the one in Garrett County is scheduled for upper Eastern Shore landowners considering leasing land for renewable energy projects.
The Eastern Shore meeting is set for June 7 at Washington College’s Hodson Hall in Chestertown, Md., from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m.