Farmers ready to fight to keep out power plant

Some Cecil neighbors oppose facility eyed for farm's 30 acres

July 09, 1999|By Greg Garland | Greg Garland,SUN STAFF

ROCK SPRINGS -- From the roadside greenhouse where they sell gardenias, strawberries and sweet corn, Roland and Donna Willard can see lush, green fields spread over acres and acres of gently rolling farmland.

The Willards and some of their neighbors fear this bucolic Cecil County community is about to change -- that a smokestack will rise where corn grows and that the quiet of the fields and the woodlands just beyond will be shattered by the whine of a power plant's gas-fired turbines.

The Willards are spearheading a fight to stop a Virginia-based company from building a power plant here that could cost as much as $400 million. Some neighbors support their efforts, but others say they welcome the jobs and tax revenue the plant would bring.

"Normally, a power plant goes into an industrial area," Roland Willard said. "This area is agricultural and it should stay agricultural. We definitely do not want a power plant to be located here."

The company, Old Dominion Electric Cooperative, a wholesale power provider to 12 electric cooperatives in Maryland, Virginia and Delaware, holds an option to buy the 110-acre farm across U.S. 222 from the Willards' greenhouse.

Company officials say they have not decided to build a plant, but that Rock Springs is the preferred location among 10 sites they investigated.

"We did an extensive search, and the two main reasons we prefer this site is the nearness to natural gas lines and to high-voltage transmission lines," said Sharon Foster, a spokeswoman for Old Dominion.

Foster stressed the company is "still in the investigating stages" of deciding whether to build a plant. It would need regulatory approval from the Maryland Department of the Environment and Public Service Commission.

Willard launched his protest after learning in late May that Old Dominion had optioned the farm and that company officials had met with county commissioners.

The retired postmaster put a sign outside his greenhouse alerting neighbors to the proposal and encouraging them to sign a petition opposing it.

He said about 300 to 400 people have signed.

"A facility of this magnitude would significantly disrupt the farming community by dramatically increasing the noise level, traffic flow, waste and pollutant levels, considerably reducing land values, and destroying the natural beauty of the landscape while intruding upon the natural habitats of many wildlife species," the petition reads.

The petition drive led to the formation of the Rock Springs Community Alliance, a group of area residents that has been meeting weekly to discuss strategies for combating the proposed plant.

Ralph and Mary Murray, who live across the Lancaster County line in Pennsylvania, which borders the proposed site, said five power plants are within a 10-mile radius.

"We're really losing our privacy with all this," said Mary Murray. "Frankly, we just need our peace and quiet."

Versie Hamilton, who lives about five miles from the proposed site, said she is asthmatic and is concerned about air pollution from the power plant. Another nearby resident, E. Louis Herr, said he worries about noise and water pollution.

Old Dominion's Foster said the plant would comply with environmental laws. She said it would be a "peaking plant" serving the Delmarva Peninsula and would operate only during peak demand periods.

She also said the company is looking into buying water discharged from Rising Sun's wastewater-treatment plant to cool turbines instead of drawing it from the Susquehanna River.

Not everyone in Rock Springs opposes the plant.

David L. Anderson, who owns a convenience store and deli about 150 yards south of the Willards' greenhouse, recently put a petition in his store supporting the plant as "environmentally clean economic development" that would enhance the county's tax base. About three dozen people have signed it.

Anderson was vacationing yesterday. His daughter Megan, 18, said her father supports the plant because of the business it could bring, particularly during the year or more of construction. The company says it would start building in fall 2001.

"When those guys are building it over there, they're going to get hungry and come over here," Megan Anderson said.

The county's top elected officials are divided over the plant, although they have no authority over whether it gets built.

"Personally, I think it's a good thing," said Cecil County Commissioner Harry A. Hepbron.

Hepbron noted that the plant would take up 30 acres on the 110-acre site and the rest of the land would be protected from development. He said he is satisfied with the company's assurances that noise and pollution won't be a problem.

The plant also is attractive, he said, because of the tax revenue it would bring. He estimates it would create revenue of at least $2.5 million a year for the county.

Commissioner Phyllis Kilby, who has a dairy farm a few miles from the proposed site, shares her neighbors' concerns about building a power plant in a farm community. But she agreed the county could use the tax money.

"I guess I'd like to have the best of all worlds -- the power plant situated in some kind of industrial area elsewhere in the county, just not smack in the middle of a cornfield," Kilby said.

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