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Harford residents, government officials push back on proposed solar farm on Calvary Road

Several Harford County residents, and representatives of the county government, voiced objections Tuesday to a proposed solar facility that could be built in the Creswell area off Route 136.

An hour-long virtual meeting hosted by the Maryland Public Service Commission represented the first opportunity for public comment on the proposed project, which would place photovoltaic panels on 140 acres of land at 2000 Calvary Road; the property is owned by Fairview Farms LLC.

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Residents urged the location be reconsidered, and county government said the proposed project ran against its philosophy of land development and could upend decades of precedent in the county. The PSC, ultimately, decides where solar farms are placed.

Barry Skoultchi said the company he represents, PTR HoldCo LLC, has constructed solar facilities along the East Coast from Maine to Georgia. Unlike some specialized companies that only attend to the building, maintenance or operation of a solar facility, the LLC’s parent company, Pro-Tech Energy Solutions, does all three in-house.

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They “stick with” projects from their construction through to eventual decommissioning, and have been in the business for 11 years, which “in the solar industry is forever,” he said.

The plan, Skoultchi said, would be to build a station generating 30 megawatts of power to be fed into a BGE circuit across Calvary Road via underground wires. BGE has already approved the project and signaled that the power grid can handle the additional capacity, he said. The project represents between $55 million and $60 million in capital investment. The project would sell the energy back to the utility for use across the power grid.

Decommissioning can come decades down the line, Skoultchi said, when the project has exceeded its useful life. Afterward, he said, the property could be reverted back to agricultural land — as it is currently zoned — and all the solar power equipment removed. The proposed project would also be guaranteed to fund the removal of equipment through some sort of financial surety, he said.

“When the solar components are removed, the site is restored ... the property could be very well and easily be returned to agricultural use,” he said.

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According to the company’s application, the total parcel is 255 acres. Solar panels would not occupy all the land, though, as Skoultchi said the company avoids developing regulated areas like wetlands and streams. While there are ways for a developer to build on those protected areas, the company has no plans to develop on the property’s natural resources if the project is approved, he said.

“It is not something that we want to do, so the approach we take is to avoid them entirely,” he said. “We think that is the responsible thing to do, and frankly, that makes our jobs a little bit easier as well.”

The panels themselves would be placed as far away from the road as allowable under county code, he said, and the ground below the panels would be planted to create insect habitats there.

Director of the Harford County’s department of planning and zoning Brad Killian took issue with the proposal, saying it is not in line with the county’s comprehensive plan.

Harford County has fewer, more generous zoning classifications that allow for many different uses within a given classification, Killian said — only 16 where there could be 30, as in other counties. The classifications allow for greater flexibility in land uses but are tempered by governmental limiting of growth to specific areas, known as the development envelope. He expressed concern in deviating from the county’s established approach to development.

“Though recent court determinations have effectively voided the county’s authority to regulate utility scale solar power generation facilities, it remains our position that the use is incompatible with the county’s comprehensive plan ... and our long term planning goals,” Killian said.

The proposed location for the solar facility is “virtually surrounded” by other plats that have been protected by the county’s land preservation program and has faced development pressure for years, Killian said. For that reason, and the fact that the company has never decommissioned one of its solar farms before, he thought the property would be unlikely to revert back to agricultural land once the solar project runs its course.

“To speak of it in glowing terms of it reverting to farm use, or agricultural use, or a more natural state or an original state is perhaps at best unrealistic and should not necessarily factor into the decision,” he said.

Killian said the county recognizes the benefits of solar power, and the county administration will soon move to introduce legislation allowing for “community solar systems” to be built in the development envelope. While he did not describe exactly what those would entail, he said they would provide more direct economic and environmental benefit to communities than larger-scale solar energy installations and be stealthily integrated into communities to minimize the drawbacks of solar power facilities.

County spokesperson Cindy Mumby said the legislation was being polished before its expected Jan. 5 debut before the Harford County Council. She said the legislation would allow for smaller panels that directly serve a customer, instead of generating energy for use elsewhere on the grid, and would also address how the panels can be situated to make them less obtrusive.

“Community systems are not more than two megawatts, by comparison, and they sell to a direct customer,” she said.

Though the county’s planning and zoning department disagrees with the project, in 2019 the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the state Public Service Commission has the final word in deciding where solar and wind energy projects are situated and can overrule local governments on the matter of their placement.

Though the county’s planning and zoning department disagrees with the project, in 2019 the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the state Public Service Commission has the final word in deciding where solar and wind energy projects are situated and can overrule local governments on the matter of their placement.

That worried homeowners across the state about eyesores popping up nearby and dragging down their property values.

In Harford County, Herbert Otto was concerned that a field of solar panels could appear next to and reduce the value of his home.

“Why would I want those panels 132 feet away from my front door?” he asked at the meeting.

He also worried the development could impact wildlife at the location and hoped those effects would be taken into consideration.

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A second public hearing in the case is scheduled for April 20. It is unclear at this time if that meeting will be held virtually or in-person.

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