Planners give favorable nod to solar project
CENTREVILLE — A solar array operation may soon be coming to Millington. The developer, Urban Grid of Stevensville, has received concept plan approval and a favorable recommendation to the Queen Anne’s County Board of Appeals from the Planning Commission for a 326.15-acre solar operation on Blanco Road in Millington.
The property, owned by John and Ruth Stoltzfus of Kennedyville, will be leased by Urban Grid as Jones Farm Lane Solar LLC for 35 years. The Queen Anne’s County Planning Commission put forth the favorable recommendation at the Oct. 12 meeting.
The proposal was discussed at length between planning commission members, the attorney for Urban Grid, the landscape architect and, representing Urban Grid, Er ynin Walkowiak.
Urban Grid outlined several aspects of its proposed plan, addressing what it believed to be several of the planning commissions’ areas of concern. With Urban Grid’s proposal, the solar panels are to be erected on a driven pile system with no plans for stripping of topsoil; low growing grasses, clovers, and pollinator friendly species will be part of a landscape buffer that would include two staggered rows of evergreen trees, essentially at the height of system, along with shrubs, said Walkowiak.
According to the landscape architect’s plan, six- to eightfoot-tall deciduous flowering and shade trees will be planted, with some 12 to 15 feet tall at time of planting. These plants should provide a visual buffer immediately, with the planting buffer totaling 3,967 linear feet, and all road exposure filled with a buffer as described or currently covered by existing forest.
A selection of native plants would be used in the buffer and Urban Grid outlined a maintenance plan for two years to ensure the buffer is established. Six months is the estimated time for construction, and Urban Grid assured the commission there would be no excess noise and no routine traffic at the location. In addition, the solar array itself would not generate noise, and the only significant change to the landscape not screened by the buffer would be the erection of the substation to transfer the collected energy to the transmission lines operated by Delmarva Power.
Construction of the substation itself will go before the Board of Appeals. The substation is intended to be
constructed adjacent to the existing transmission corridor and placed near existing tallest structure, so larger structures are gathered together, said Urban Grid.
A portion of the site is currently excluded from the plan because Maryland Historical Trust has not yet cleared that portion, said Walkowiak. If cleared, the plan will show panels on that area. If Maryland Historic Trust uncovers anything of substance there, that land will remain untouched.
Discussion ensued over the proposed text amendments to County Ordinance 17-17, to repeal and re-enact current Conditional Use Section 18:1-95.S Solar Arrays, amend the Open Space Section 18:1- 12.A to remove NCD and TDR open space for solar arrays, and amend Article VI Accessory Uses to add a new Solar Array Standards. The changes were presented to the commission by Holly Tompkins, development review principal planner.
Earlier in the meeting a favorable recommendation was given by the planners to the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners with direction to planning staff that if
changes are suggested as a result of a proposed meeting the following week with industry members, the Text Amendment be brought back before the Planning Commission.
Planning and Zoning Director Michael Wisnoski said it was possible staff could sit down with each applicant about landscape design, as Urban Grid relayed concerns that the lengthy (16-page) ordinance issued prescriptive measures and did not seem to allow for
flexibility as written.
Urban Grid and another interested solar project developer, One Energy Renewal, engaged at different points in the meeting in debating with the commission the finer points of the new text amendments. Wisnoski said the 404 solar array project owned and operated by Solar City and permitted by One Energy was an example of screening that was not adequate nor followed through on, and where topsoil was removed when it it
shouldn’t have been, which necessitated the more specific requirements in the text amendment.
Planning Commission Attorney Christopher F. Drummond said the Comprehensive Plan strives to maintain the rural nature of the county. Solar arrays can be ugly and jarring; softening that jarring appearance is important, Drummond said.
Urban Grid said it was suggesting some additional flexibility with the text amendment as there is a fine line
between what is economic and what is not. “We have to make sure [the project] is competitive, if I’m a buyer, [I am looking at] where can I get a project that is affordable as a developer,” said Walkowiak.
“[Solar] developers show up and act like every other freaking developer, pushing back against requirements,” Drummond said.
In response to Drummond’s concern that developers concerns are focused primarily on financial profitability, Walkowiak said, “We all have to feed our families, but it [solar construction] is of environmental benefit, but there has to be economic incentive to make it viable to construct.”
If the commission thinks more input from the [solar] industry is needed, said Wisnoski, the planning department will gather it. However, said Wisnoski, it would be incumbent upon the solar developers and their professional staff to get back to him, iterating that he had not received input up to this point from parties interested to the industry. “I am not chasing the industry,” repeated Wisnoski.
Planning Commissioner Sharon Dobson suggested comments from interested members of the [solar] industry be received by the close of business, Oct. 20.
The full motion to accept amendments to Ordinance 17-17 regulating solar arrays and solar array standards was given a favorable recommendation as written. Planning Commission Chairman John Perkins directed Planning and Zoning staff that if they proposed changes to the amendment after meeting with the industry they the amendments back before the Planning Commission.
In addition, a Map Amendment/County Ordinance 17-15 – to add Utility Scale Solar Array (USSA) Overlay Map to Queen Anne’s County Zoning Maps, as presented by Helen M. Spinelli, principal planner, was given favorable recommendation to the Queen Anne’s County Commissioners. As was Text Amendment/ County Ordinance 17-16 – to add a new zoning district, Utility Scale Solar Arrays, as Section 18:1-39 that shall only apply to the area of the county identified on the Utility Scale Solar Array Overlay Map and add definitions for Small-Scale Solar Array and Utility Scale Solar Array to Chapter 18 App-1 Appendix a: Glossary.
As pertaining to the Jones Farm Lane Solar project already applied for, these new recommendations would apply at the commissioners’ discretion, said Tompkins.