Township supervisors near Gettysburg, PA, on June 3 pulled the plug on what could have been Pennsylvania’s largest solar energy project.
After 18 months of virtual public hearings, Mount Joy Township supervisors voted against granting a conditional-use permit that would have allowed Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources to build 330,000 12-foot-high swiveling solar panels on 1,000 acres of 18 different farms.
The vote was streamed on Zoom and residents, who were not allowed into the building where the meeting was held, held a rally outside. No supervisors commented on their vote.
The final vote was a 2-2 tie, which, under township rules for conditional-use permits, is considered a no vote. A fifth supervisor recused himself because he had signed leases on his farm for the project.
The project, called Brookline Solar 1, faced a strong backlash from 168 property owners that border the project and others.
Organized as Residents for Responsible Solar and Agriculture, citizens have attacked the project as an industrial-scale power plant that would harm Adams County’s two largest industries: agriculture and Civil War tourism.
During testimony at 20 public hearings on the conditional-use permit, a real estate appraiser said property values of homes adjacent to the solar arrays would decline by 20%. In contrast, NextEra witnesses said previous solar projects around the country have not affected property values and that the solar array would not produce glare problems for homeowners or motorists.
Other criticisms included that only 50-foot setbacks from neighboring properties and roads were required.
Before the June 3 vote, one supervisor proposed new conditions for a permit, including making NextEra put up a $3.3 million bond to pay for the solar array’s removal when it is eventually decommissioned. The panels would have to be of non-reflective materials and the builder would be “encouraged” to buy materials made in the United States.
The 75-megawatt, $90 million solar project would have produced power for the 13-state regional electrical wholesaler PJM Interconnection, on behalf of an unnamed buyer. The state’s current largest solar array started operation in October in adjacent Franklin County. That 70-megawatt facility will produce power to the regional electric grid for Penn State University.
In March, the state announced plans to purchase power from a solar project that would generate 191 megawatts spread out on 1,800‑2,000 acres in six counties. The project has a 2023 completion date. That project would have a larger power capacity than the project proposed for the Gettysburg area but would be much more spread out.
Opponents of the Gettysburg-area solar project celebrated after the permit denial but do not believe the project is necessarily dead.
“I’m still apprehensive that there is going to be a plan B,” said Todd McCauslin, founder of Residents for Responsible Solar and Agriculture.
McCauslin, whose home borders the proposed solar project, noted that in February, NextEra sought a permit for the 10 properties that were not subject to a conditional-use permit. The township’s Zoning Hearing Board denied the request because it was incomplete and did not contain a required stormwater management plan.
“I’m happy, but at the same time I feel the vultures are still circling,” McCauslin said. “I don’t think we’re out of the woods yet until we get our zoning ordinance revised and amended to make it like surrounding townships that have protective, reasonable ordinances.”
Indeed, Lisa Paul, a spokeswoman for NextEra, which could appeal the township supervisors’ decision, indicated the company was not dropping the project. “We were hopeful the township supervisors would have voted on a clear approval of the conditional use permit for the portion of the project in the Baltimore Pike corridor. We are evaluating our options and look forward to the continued development of the project.”
Over the last year, Pennsylvania had been criticized by renewable energy advocates for not doing enough on the solar front. PennFuture, one the state’s largest environmental groups, had endorsed the Brookline Solar 1 project.