Residents balk at representatives making solar pitch

Associate Editor

LOTHIAN, Md. (July 4, 2017) — A Seattle solar company came to southern Anne Arundel County on June 28 hoping to speak with local residents about three solar panel projects they want to construct on farmland there. They arrived with a detailed agenda. Questions and comments, they hoped, were to be reserved for the end of the meeting.
They had no such luck.
From the start, a group of residents and farmers protested the projects, claiming they would disfigure the region’s rural character and surrender more of its shrinking mass of farmland to ambitious clean energy interests.
“This community has fought to keep this area rural, and what you seem to be telling us is the next big crop is solar panels,” said E. Steuart Chaney, a local resident and marina resort owner, inside Mt. Zion United Methodist Church. “We will do what we can do to protect this area from massive development.”
OneEnergy Renewables is hoping to build two projects on farms in Lothian and another in Tracy’s Landing about five miles south. The first on Bayard Road west of Barksdale Farm Road would occupy 17 acres of an 82-acre farm. The second at Sands Road and Ed Prout Road would occupy 37 acres of a 59-acre parcel, and the third on Franklin Gibson Road north of Deale Road in Tracy’s Landing would occupy 19 acres of a 50-acre farm.
The projects 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.
Representatives with several companies associated with the projects touted their environmental and cost benefits to consumers. They also reiterated the care and concern that went into siting the projects to adhere to regulations and avoid wetlands, critical areas and wildlife habitat. Natural vegetative buffers will be planted, they said, to help hide the panel farms.
But skeptical residents and farmers peppered the group with a barrage of questions over 90 minutes. One man said he’d spoken with a real estate agent who told him a nearby solar farm would harm his home’s value just before he plans to sell. (Kate Larkin, a manager at OneEnergy, said studies have shown solar farms don’t adversely affect nearby property values.) Others were concerned about the disruption from construction and the infrastructure necessary to complete the projects.
But most comments reflected concern about the region’s culture and heritage. Some families in the area have owned and worked the land since the 17th century, several attendees said, and they are concerned about the number and size of solar and wind energy projects that have proliferated across the state in the last several years.
“This is also an in-road into South County,” one audience member said. “If this starts, it’s not going to stop.”
But the projects aren’t necessarily harming farms, Larkin said. In fact, the opposite is true in cases.
“Some of these projects are going to allow these people to keep these farms,” she said.
Otis Johnson, who owns the Tracy’s Landing property, is one example. He said he leases his land to a farmer and hopes to count on the revenue from the solar project to keep the parcel mostly agricultural and honor his father who worked the land.
“We do not want to subdivide it (into homes) because we understand our rural responsibility,” he said as he stood next to his wife, Kecia.
Solar paneling, at the moment, is also a more stable investment than most crops, said Jennifer Barnes, an OneEnergy spokesperson.
“It helps fund the operations that are getting more and more expensive and more and more difficult to fund with rising and falling markets and weather conditions,” she said.
BG&E may also choose other proposed sites and abandon some or all of the South County projects, Larkin said. If they did come to fruition, however, the paneling would likely be decommissioned after a 30-year period, and the land could quickly be returned to farming.
The projects represent significant investment in the state, the company said in literature available at the meeting. Each project will provide at least 28 jobs. But, at its core, it’s about selling cheap, clean solar energy to eager customers, the company said.
“There’s a lot of people who don’t have any avenue to buy solar energy,” said John Forgash, an OneEnergy project developer.
Most in the audience seemed unmoved.
“But why should we have to provide that to them?” a woman in the audience responded.