As Benjamin Gale Jr. drives along narrow roads with ribbon-like borders of black-eyed Susans, he winces at an occasional water tower looming over expansive farmlands in this secluded region of Maryland's Eastern Shore.
What bothers Gale is not the water tower, but the sinister picture it evokes in his mind's eye - taller bolder smokestacks spewing infinite plumes of smoke.
Gale's own Kent County, settled in 1706, is embroiled in the most spirited battle in its recent history, bar even the Revolutionary War, some would suggest. A state agency has selected 1,460 acres not far from Gale's corn and soybean farm as a possible site for a massive electrical power plant.
"It'll be the worst thing that ever struck us," moaned Vesta Briscoe, a domestic who lives in a tiny black settlement that backs up to the proposed location of the nuclear fuel or coal-powered utility.
The heavy industry, its unioniuzed workers and their citified habits would be unwelcome intrusions into this rural locale, which with its 16,000 residents has the smallest population of any Maryland county. Some citizens even say they already can smell the marijuana they fear would drift into their communities and can envision screens that could cover jewelry store windows to prevent bread-ins.
The proposed power plant location on the low cliffs of the Chesapeake Bay 20 miles north of the Bay Bridge would swallow up Dorothy Mendehall's bird-banding station, which has for years been a noon to the Audubon Society, and Frank Dierker's "Heart's Desire Farm" whose 10-foot-tall corn stalks dwarf cars passing by.
"And the noise," complained Henry Wright of Chesapeake Landing. "I already have a grain elevator near me and it keeps me awake all night."
What is brewing in Kent County on the north end of the Eastern Shore is the unavoidable Parochial backlash to the state's power plant siting policy that at it inception in 1971 was considered an intelligent means of perparing for future energy needs.
The Power Plant Siting Act approved by the General Assewmbly was designed to "facilitate providing adequate electric power on reasonable schedule at reasonable costs with the least possible depreciation of the quality of Maryland's environment." In doing so, Maryland became the first state to go into the business of purchasing future sites for private electrical utilities.
Under the law, strict site standards must be met, and property could be ruled out because of unfavorable impact on everything from historucal landmarks, wildlife and local recreational area to shellfish and finfish breeding grounds and air and soil quality, among other factors.
The law also permits - the here is where the trouble starts - the state to choose sites without regard to any local zoning ordinance and consequently, the vote of the residents.
Massicot's aim is to obtain one future site for each of the four electrical utilities serving Maryland. The state has bought land in St. Mary's County for Potomac Electric Power Co. and is negotiating for the former Bainbridge Naval Training Cneter in Cecil County for Baltimore Gas and Electric. Yet to be selected is land for Potomac Edison in western Maryland.
Although the law does no provide for citizen participation in site selection, Massicot's office is soliciting it, firs through local elected officials and latter through public meetings.
"It's a very difficult public policy issue," he conceded, "and there's a big paradox involved.It is increasingly impossible for the average person to learn enough about the ral issues in energy matters to participate objectively in this decision in a meaningul way.
"Yet we have the feeling this is the best way to run the show: to let people in on the process, to inform them and give them the chance to complain before its finished."
"It seemed like a good idea at the time," said Paul Massicot, who heads the power plant siting program in the state's Department of Natural Resources.
"Wherever you turn, people are going to be agains to power plants, and utilities are going to have more and more problems acquiring sites. Look at the difficulties in locating prisons and landfills. No one wants these facilities near them. Then the governor has to let inmates out of the prisons early because there is no room for them. We wanted to get a head start on this process."
In addition, Massicot said, local residents can provide useful technical information about their communities that is not recorded in state offices or is out of date.
When the planners began eyeing the Eastern Shore for the fourth utility, Delmarva Power and Light Co., the normally "sleepy" residents, as they amusingly refer to themselves in Kent and Queen Ann's counties, woke up.
"We've got a lot of fightin' people here," said Dave Bramble, a genial road builder whose family has lived in Kent County for five generations. "They think we're pretty relaxed, but we can fight like hell."
The state planners' first choice for the Shore - land at Still Pons Neck in Kent - was fought for three years by Kent Conservation, a local environmental group, until it was rejected by a count on a technicality.
Then in early August, Massicot's office proposed four other Shore sites for consideration- in Kent and Queen Anne's in the north and Dorchester and Wicomico counties in the south. Natural Resources Secretary James B. Coulter will choose one of them ny Dec. 1. A preliminary decision could come as early as Tuesday.
Massicot has received no comment from Wiconmico residents. In Dorchester, where a small anti-power plant pgroup former last week, the county commissioners favor the utility. Such an industry, noted Leonard Dayton, president of the commissioners, would pay substantial taxes wothout requiring many additional services.
Delmarva's only other power plant on the Maryland Eastern Shore is located in Dorchester. "Without it, w'd be the poorest county in the state," Dayton said.
But many Kent and Queen Anne's residents foresee a complete disruption of their tradiitonal culture, which has been held together by watermen, farmers, garden club doyennes, history buffs and merchants.
Within six weeks, local residents who previously knew little if anything about the subject of power plants found themselves leaders in a movement to keep them out. The phone rarely stops ringing at the home of Ben Gale; a wealthy corn and soybean farmer who heads the protest group. One recent weekend, his wife Deborah stood outside the A & P store distributing leaflets.
"They don't want it here. it's as simple as that," said Roland T. (Bucky) Larrimore, chairman of the Kent County commissioners. Though Larrimore privately objects to the plant, he and the other Kent commissioners have not yet taken public stands either way.
Residents don't need the power now and for the future, say they'd rather see conservation of electircity than a gigantic power plant in their back yards. They insist they'll never see the tax benefits in their own bills. They snicker at the technological "boondoggles" they hear about, such as the Washington Metro subway and the Alaskan oil pipeline.
For years, they've lived downwind from Baltimore and Dundalk's pollution, and if they wanted dirty cities, they say they'd move to one.
"Here we live in a free country, and the state comes in and takes a man's property that's been in the family for 45 years or more and says, 'you got to go'. It doesn't seem right," complained Ed Fry, who transported his beef and dairy herds form Montgomery County to Kent 18 years ago.
The path, as they see it, is up the "political chain of command," as Mary Walkup puts it. "This makes me so angry. We're not so important when it comes to votes in the legislature, so why are we so important when it comes to dumping a power plant somewhere?"
Most of the time, however, the voices of Kent Countians reverberate around a more fundamental theme.
"We just can't afford to take that amoundt of ground out of agriculture," said Jim McFadden of Fair Lee. "It's like the goose that laid the golden eggs and then wasted them. Our children and grandchildren will judge us by the kind of stewards we were for the soil. That's the most precious commodity we have."