The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Georgetown wants to raze 210 acres of trees to meet green-energy goals. Environmentalists are crying foul.

James Morelli and Edwin Moses of Origis Energy walk through wooded and unimproved land that Georgetown University wants to use for a solar farm. (Mary F. Calvert/For The Washington Post)
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Environmentalists are in a position they never imagined: Fighting a solar panel project that would help Georgetown University dramatically reduce its greenhouse gas emissions.

They say the project, which involves razing about 210 acres of trees in rural Charles County, Md., could endanger the area’s birds and lead to runoff that would put tributaries to the Chesapeake Bay at risk.

Leaders at the solar company hired by Georgetown counter that they are prioritizing the safety of the bay but that “trade-offs are necessary” in renewable energy projects. Reductions in greenhouse emissions from the solar panels, they say, would be equivalent to planting hundreds of thousands of trees.

Fights like this one are increasingly common as public and private entities turn to solar and wind energy, leading to debates about where projects should be located.

“Green projects do not destroy green resources,” said Linda Redding, an accountant from La Plata who is part of a determined group of environmentalists from Charles and Prince George’s counties opposing the project. “If you destroy what is saving our climate in the name of fighting climate change, the effort is hollow.”

The activists accuse Georgetown and Origis Energy of “green-washing” and are hoping to convince the Maryland Department of the Environment to deny a needed permit. A public hearing is scheduled for Feb. 27.

Georgetown spokesman Matt Hill said in a statement that the university “is deeply committed to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions by 50 percent by 2020 through a multipronged approach to sustainability.”

As part of that effort, the university announced an agreement with Miami-based Origis in 2017 to develop the solar farm, which will provide almost half of the university’s electricity.

Can solar energy and wildlife coexist?

Charles County’s 12-member Board of Appeals, which grants special-exception zoning permits, unanimously approved the solar farm on May 8.

Edwin Moses, managing director of project development for Origis, said the company hopes to begin construction this summer, following final approval by the county and state. He said the rural 537-acre parcel, about 12 miles west of La Plata, was chosen based on its proximity to power lines and business considerations, including price.

“It’s a good site and a good project,” he said, navigating the muddy roads in a pickup truck.

The parcel, located within the Chesapeake Bay watershed, is one of the state’s “targeted ecological areas,” meaning it is a conservation priority for the Department of Natural Resources. A number of at-risk birds — including bald eagles, warblers, eastern whip-poor-wills and wood thrushes — live there in the Nanjemoy forest, according to the Audubon Society of Maryland and D.C.

Moses said the company has not found any endangered species during its climate studies and has taken steps to ensure that tributaries to the bay would not be affected by runoff.

Andrew Elmore, a professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science, said the best place for solar panel installations are the roofs of parking lots and buildings. He said he is not familiar with the details of the Origis project but studies how ecosystems interact with land-use issues.

“These are industrial operations,” he said. “Just because there is a positive environmental impact doesn’t offset the fact that you’re cutting down forest.”

Environment secretary Ben H. Grumbles, who must decide whether to grant a wetlands permit, said the project “is definitely raising some concerns about unacceptable impacts on the trees and wetlands.”

He said the administration of Gov. Larry Hogan (R) wants to balance creating new renewable energy projects and making sure that those projects happen in locations that are appropriate. Last month, Hogan joined Comptroller Peter Franchot and Treasurer Nancy K. Kopp, both Democrats, to block Columbia Gas from using state land to build a natural gas pipeline that activists have been fighting for two years. Hogan also supported a ban on hydraulic fracturing in the state.

Hogan says he offers a ‘model’ of bipartisanship. That’s only partly true.

The site designated for the solar farm is owned by nine people descended from the two original property owners. Steve Scott, the court-appointed trustee for the land, said the owners tried to sell for years before agreeing with Origis to a $1.3 million purchase price. He said the sale has not been finalized.

If the solar farm is blocked, Scott said, the owners could elect to “timber” the property, which has been done in the past and would involve cutting down a large number of the trees. Many of the trees on the property now appear relatively young, although environmentalists say this does not lessen their importance in the ecosystem.

If the solar farm is built, 32 “specimen trees,” which are more than 30 inches in diameter, will remain in place, while 17 others of that size will be cut down, Moses said.

“Part of the foundation of America — I hate to wax poetic — but property rights were one of the earliest and most important things in this country,” Moses said. “And permits are exactly the method to resolve differences of opinion.”

State Sen. Arthur Ellis (D-Charles County), who lives a few miles from the site, described the project as “a win-win for Charles County.”

“To be honest, it’s a great source of energy,” Ellis said. “It will also be great for the county because we will get commercial tax revenue.”

For the activists, who have long pushed to limit big developments in Charles County, the project is another example of a company from outside the area trying to develop land in a way that they believe isn’t right for the largely rural community 30 miles from Washington.

Redding said land in Charles is “being targeted because it is still cheaper than land in McLean or Montgomery County.”

“But that doesn’t mean it should be exploited,” she said.

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