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Public hearing on possible solar farm on Route 136 in Harford County scheduled for Dec. 15

A solar power facility slated for the Creswell area — which had been denied by Harford County planning officials three years ago but was cleared to move forward following a Circuit Court decision last year — will be the subject of a Maryland Public Service Commission public hearing later this month.

The virtual public hearing on the 30-megawatt Fairview Farms project is scheduled for 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Dec. 15, with Public Utility Law Judge Christine Burke presiding.

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PTR HoldCo LLC is seeking state approval to build a facility with 102,000 photovoltaic panels, as well as 13 power centers and two interconnection points, on 140 acres at 2000 Calvary Road. The applicant is a subsidiary of New Jersey-based Pro-Tech Energy Solutions LLC, which has been in business for 11 years, and develops, builds and operates solar projects along the East Coast, from Maine to Georgia, according to Barry Skoultchi, chief development officer.

Pro-Tech develops its own solar projects and builds solar facilities for other customers, such as online retailer Amazon, which Skoultchi said is “very aggressive in putting solar on the rooftops of their buildings.”

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The land slated for Pro-Tech’s Harford County project is between Route 543, Schucks Road and Route 136. The agriculturally-zoned property is owned by the Fielder family, who currently operate a farm there — Pro-Tech would lease the land for the solar facility.

The Maryland Public Service Commission will hold a virtual public comment hearing on a request to build a solar facility at Fairview Farms, located at 2000 Calvary Road in the Creswell area. The hearing will be held Dec. 15 via WebEx and will be conducted by Public Utility Law Judge Christine Burke.
The Maryland Public Service Commission will hold a virtual public comment hearing on a request to build a solar facility at Fairview Farms, located at 2000 Calvary Road in the Creswell area. The hearing will be held Dec. 15 via WebEx and will be conducted by Public Utility Law Judge Christine Burke. (Matt Button / The Aegis/Baltimore Sun Media)

Pro-Tech and Fairview Farms LLC, made up of Fielder family members, first sought approval to build the solar power facility from Harford County in 2017. The county’s planning and zoning director determined in October of that year that the facility could not be approved for ag-zoned land, as a “power and regeneration plan” would not be suitable for the Fielders’ property.

The applicants appealed the county’s decision, but zoning hearing examiner Robert Kahoe Jr. upheld it after two hearings in 2018. Kahoe put the solar facility in the same category as other power-generating plants, such as those fueled by coal, natural gas, hydroelectric or wind, and said it would only be appropriate for general industrial districts.

The Harford County Council, sitting as the Board of Appeals, voted unanimously in February of 2019 to uphold Kahoe’s decision. The appeals board’s ruling had to be vacated by court order last September, after the applicants appealed to Harford County Circuit Court, and Judge Kevin Mahoney granted their motion for a “pre-appeal determination,” sending it back to the Board of Appeals to vacate, rather than conduct a judicial review of the case.

That background is covered in Pro-Tech’s 519-page environmental assessment document, noting that the state Public Service Commission has sole authority regarding placement of solar power facilities, based on the Maryland Court of Appeals ruling last summer in the case of Washington County v. Perennial Solar LLC.

Pro-Tech’s environmental report notes that the project meets Harford County regulations for ag zones, which allow a “public utility facility” to be built in those districts.

The county zoning code defines a public utility as “a gas and electric company regulated by the Maryland Public Service Commission or a cable television company operating under a franchise granted by the County Council,” and a public utility facility as a “utility facility owned by a governmental agency or private organization, maintained and operated for benefit of the general public.”

The proposed solar facility will absorb sunlight, create energy, then send it to BGE’s power distribution grid through a connection to the utility’s existing lines along Route 136, directly across the highway from the farm, according to Skoultchi.

The ground-mounted system comes with “single-axis trackers,” or motors that shift the panels as the sun moves across the sky in order to capture as much of the sun’s rays as possible, meaning “you optimize the amount of sunlight that is absorbed and power that’s generated,” according to Skoultchi.

“We get probably about a 10% to 15% percent bump in [power] production with a single-axis tracker,” he said.

Skoultchi stressed that the solar facility is not a permanent use of the property, but an interim use, and the panels and supporting infrastructure can be removed once the facility’s useful life of 25 to 30 years has ended. Once the facility is removed, the property can be returned to its agricultural state if the owners and county officials desire.

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He also noted that the solar facility will be designed to avoid any impact on environmentally sensitive features such as streams and wetlands, and an earthen berm and vegetated buffer will be installed between the facility and houses along Schucks Road.

“There’s no burden on the [community], there’s no burden on the tax base, there’s no burden on existing infrastructure, and it produces clean energy,” Skoultchi said.

Any member of the public who wants to speak during the hearing should send an email to psc.pulj@gmail.com by noon on Monday, Dec. 14. People also can watch the hearing live online via the Public Utility Law Judge Division channel on YouTube, according to a news release issued by the PSC on Tuesday.

People also can submit written comments to the PSC online through April 29, 2021, or by mail. Comments sent by mail should be addressed to Andrew S. Johnston, Executive Secretary, Maryland Public Service Commission, William Donald Schaefer Tower, 6 St. Paul Street, 16th Floor, Baltimore, Maryland 21202.

Written comments, whether submitted online or by mail, should include a reference to Case. No 9652. People can visit a PSC web page for Case 9652 for background information on the project, including a link to the application and Environmental Review Document.

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