Colora residents win fight against proposed solar farm

Stephanie Peterson painted this call to action sign in late February to warn neighbors about the proposed solar farm. Peterson and her neighbors spent hours testifying Monday night, then heard Tuesday the project has been withdrawn.

ELKTON — The solar farm planned for a small parcel of farmland in Colora has been withdrawn by the applicant, according to the Cecil County Office of Land Use and Development.

Stephen O’Connor, acting director, said the application from Alder Energy and John and Marcia Harnish was withdrawn Tuesday, hours after the Cecil County Planning Commission voted to deny a special exception needed to build the 6,630-panel array on the land zoned for Northern Agricultural Residential.

This came after more than three hours of testimony before the commission that preceded the unanimous vote Monday night to deny a request from a South Carolina company and a Pennsylvania property owner to construct a large scale solar generation station in and area surrounded by some 50 houses in Colora.

Glen Peterson called it a “victory for Colora.”

“We are ecstatic,” he said Tuesday after the withdrawal was made public. “And very relieved that things worked out and that common sense prevailed.”

Peterson said the county staff explained the rules and how each needed to be followed.

“The professionalism of our Land Use people who were timely, punctual and patient and there were Planning Commission folks who listened,” said Peterson, one of the lead organizers within the Colora Preservation Society Facebook group.

Peterson has not talked to his neighbors yet but definitely thinks there’s some kind of celebration to be had.

“I imagine there will be something to say, ‘Congratulations Colora! We won!’” Peterson said, adding that could involve his wife Stephanie, who made the initial call to action sign seen along Liberty Grove Road.

Peterson was fully prepared to go to the Board of Appeals meeting next week and repeat his case, as stated by him and many others Monday night.

Donald Harmer, planning commission member, was pleased with the turnout for the virtual hearing, which drew more than 75 speakers, mostly in opposition.

“It’s nice to see everyone invested in the community,” Harmer said.

John and Marcia Harnish from Quarryville, Pa., were planning to lease their almost 32-acre parcel of farmland along Liberty Grove Road to Alder Energy, a Charleston, S.C. company. Alder Energy would erect and maintain 6,630 solar arrays surrounded by a buffer of earthen berms, trees, shrubs, wildflowers and security fencing.

Dwight Thomey, representing Alder and the Harnishes, explained that there would have been little digging or soil disturbance during construction, which would take about three months to complete.

“Once it’s up and running, it’s scheduled to be maintained with a once-a-year inspection,” Thomey, who is based in Elkton, said in his testimony. “If the equipment fails, we’ll be alerted and send out a maintenance truck.”

He explained that the poles on which the panels would be erected would be inserted into the ground using vibration.

“The only trenching would be to run wires,” he said.

All that explanation did nothing to calm the fears of the residents of Colora and surrounding communities, who questioned the safety of the equipment and its impact on not only the land but also the water, humans and animals and the quality of life.

Those who had lived in the area all their lives – like Tiffanie Huntsman – worried about the precedent that would be set if the special exception were to be passed.

“I was born and raised in Colora and have never lived outside of a 5-mile radius,” Huntsman said. “I want to keep it pristine and raise my son in the same quality.”

Most of the speakers said during the hearing they have lived in the unincorporated burg anywhere from five to over 30 years and did not want to see what they felt was a commercial or industrial project in close proximity to three housing subdivisions and farmland.

Also of concern was the effect the project would have on endangered native species such as the bog turtle and American bald eagles.

Marie McCloskey has solar panels on her home but she is against the project too.

“I’ve had trouble with birds diving into the solar panels and dying,” she said, adding, “It’s not a pretty sight.”

Kim Grub said had the solar farm been in Colora when she was home buying five years ago, she would have moved elsewhere.

“It’s going to be a huge detriment to homes around here,” Grub, a real estate agent, said. “Homes with solar panels are the hardest to sell.”

Robin Garrett pointed out that this is still a relatively new technology.

“We still do not know the long-term effects of electro-magnetic fields,” Garrett said. “You can hide it somewhat but it still affects the community.”

Residents with children or grandchildren on the autism spectrum also worried about the project and the noise it would generate. Donald Zimmerman, president of Alder Energy, said the only noise would be from the fans in the inverters. He added that noise would be imperceptible 100 feet away.

Jennifer Sponaugle is raising a son with autism. She said he can hear tones that others cannot.

“We took him near a solar site,” she told the commission. She wanted to see if there was any concern with the noise for herself. “He went ballistic.”

Michelle Brown is an educator who teaches children with special needs.

“I have seen their challenges in a school setting,” Brown, who also lives in Colora, told the commission. “It breaks my heart that some can’t even go to their home and have peace and quiet.”

Glen Peterson went so far as to play a video clip of a decibel meter reading the noise as he stood by a solar array elsewhere in Cecil County.

“You’ve heard them talking about the noise,” Peterson said. “What you haven’t heard is the mechanical screech.”

Neither John nor Marcia Harnish spoke at the hearing.

The opposition included real estate appraisers, engineers and natural resources experts all voicing concern, among them, what happens to the site at the end of its 25 to 35 year expected life span. Cecil County has no law on its books requiring a decommissioning plan or a bond to cover the cost.

“The county zoning is silent on the deconstruction bond,” Harmer said.

However, Zimmerman pointed out that he and the Harnishes have that provision in their contract.

Wyatt Wallace, a planning commission member, pointed out that fellow commission member Joyce Bowlsbey indicated that the soil on the Harnish property is considered top quality for farming and recently had been fertilized as such.

“This is not the right spot for it,” Wallace said of the solar proposal.

With word that the planning commission staff recommended voting to disapprove, Bowlsbey moved and Wallace seconded the commission’s opposition.

After all the testimony, Harmer pointed out that none of the existing solar panel projects in Cecil County are in a residential neighborhood, listing Simpers Lane, Blue Ball Road, Augustine Herman Highway, Nottingham Road and Leeds Elementary School.

“That’s on 87 acres and only two or three houses are nearby,” Harmer said of the Leeds project.

A solar farm project off Telegraph Road, he added, is so far removed from the public eye one has to look to find it in the middle of a large tract of land.

“None of these mentioned had the same residential concentration,” Harmer said.

Lastly, he pointed to the county’s own zoning laws.

“Colora is zoned Village Residential,” Harmer said. “I believe this is in conflict with the VR zone. At this scale it’s a back door industrial use.”

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