Mt. Joy Township Supervisors and attorneys for NextEra Energy and local residents who opposed the project have ended the 80 or so hours of evidentiary hearings they have participated in over the past year to discuss the merits of NextEra’s proposed solar array project that would cover hundreds of acres in the township.
Thousands of documents, dozens of witnesses, and hundreds of comments from local residents have been part of the 20 or so meetings that have been held since January 2020.
The many hours of testimony, conducted in a small room with some in-person participants and many others connecting remotely, considered a wide variety of issues relating to the project and the goals of homeowners and the township, and ranged from outright hostility to moments of levity and comraderie.
As the testimony closed NextEra lawyers praised the supervisors and solicitor Susan Smith for their time, saying they felt the hearings had been through, fair, and civil.
Evidence from the “quasi-judicial” proceeding will be the only evidence the township supervisors will use as they decide whether to allow the large 75 megawatt solar panel array across 19 properties.
In the Baltimore Pike Corridor Zoning Area installation of the panels is subject to “conditional” zoning, which means the township must determine whether or not to allow them.
NextEra Energy has contracted with the landowners to lease their land for 30 years, allowing them to install panels on it.
Homeowners argue they should have the freedom to put the panels on their property, whereas the adjacent homeowners argue the panels will devalue their properties and cause other harm to the county.
At the most recent meeting NextEra said efficiency gains and design changes had allowed it to substantially reduce the size of the arrays to 450 acres or less – much smaller than the footprint they had initially proposed. Because there is space between the panels the total acreage covered by panels is about 180 acres.
NextEra said it had taken the concerns of the affected neighbors into consideration in its redesign by moving panels away from properties where people had expressed concerns. NextEra said they were trying to design a facility that is “fits with the land.” NextEra pledged to continue working with the public to design a facility “which we can all be proud of.”
NextEra said they had reduced the amount of trees that would need to be cleared to less than three acres, and offered to increase their security bond, which would ensure the site could be cleaned up when the project was decommissioned, from $20,000 to $500,000.
NextEra said the solar panels could be surrounded by fences that are 7 rather than 8 feet high if the township would allow that and that 26 miles of landscape buffers including pollinator plantings would be created.
Hundreds of residents who have properties nearby the proposed project have expressed concerns, including potential dangers to wildlife and endangered species, potential dust created by the project, stormwater runoff and ground water safety, hurricane risks, safety concerns with transmission lines and toxins, glare from the panels, and traffic congestion.
Saying the fences would cause problems for the resident deer population and expressing concerns about groundwater contamination and a negative impact on the character of the neighborhood, adjacent landowner Scott Sanders said hundreds of people in the township opposed the project. “It sounds like a bad movie where the victim comes in the middle of the night. People thought our properties were protected. This is a decision that will impact us for generations to come. This is a ticking time bomb,” he said.
A NextEra expert witness said permits had been acquired assuring the project posed no danger to threatened species or to wetlands. A small gap under the fencing would allow small mammals to move through the fenced-off areas.
A major question has concerned the potential decrease in home values as a result of the installation and experts on both sides of the controversy, coming to different conclusions, were called to testify.
Landowner Clayton Wood said his family had farmed his property for over four generations but that it had become impossible to keep the farm going. Wood said the price of milk had dropped and traffic had increased in the area making farming dangerous.
Woods said he considered lots of options to keep the farm, including offers from the solar industry, and had considered the issue carefully before making a decision to sign with NextEra. Wood said it was a way to maintain ownership and pass the land to his children.
Wood said he believed the land would be developed for some other use going forward. “It’s probably not going to be used for farming forever. This is what works for us,” said Wood.
Other uses already permitted by right in the Baltimore Corridor include car washes, single and two family dwellings, golf courses, group homes, nursing homes, churches, and trade schools.
Wood said advantage of solar was that after the project was over the land could again be used for farming whereas other types of development would be unlikely to allow that.
The next meeting, to be held on March 24, will be for public comments. The meeting will be conducted remotely due to court-ordered restrictions. Residents or property owners of Mt. Joy who wish to make public comment can sign up to do so by visiting the township website.
In the next phase each of the parties will submit memorandums to the Board. After reviewing the submitted documents the board will make a decision to grant, grant with conditions, or deny the application.
If the project is approved NextEra said it would likely start construction next year and that full operation is scheduled for late 2023.