SNOW HILL— The Worcester County Board of Commissioners this week heard testimony from Stephen C. Thompson, senior vice president of Chesapeake Utilities Corporation, who said the commissioners’ approval was necessary in order to get the expansion approved by the Public Service Commission (PSC).
“We look forward for the opportunity to bring natural gas to Worcester County,” he said.
Natural gas, he said, was cleaner burning, more efficient and less expensive than other home-heating alternatives, including propane. According to his company’s estimates, the average customer savings over propane was more than $1,000 per year.
The reason Chesapeake Utilities is now moving so quickly to try and secure permission to bring a natural gas pipeline into the county is that congress offered tax credits for contracts executed by the end of the year. The tax credits would make profitable a project that once appeared too expensive, thus making it more attractive to the utility.
To be eligible, Thompson estimated that the necessary paperwork, including right-of-ways and permits would have to be completed by August, a feat Commissioner Virgil Shockley suggested was unlikely. If they are unable to complete this task, the county is not bound by the agreement.
Chesapeake Utility Company owns Eastern Shore Natural Gas, which is in not affiliated with Eastern Shore Gas, the current propane provider to much of Ocean Pines. It also owns distributorships — Chesapeake Utilities Delaware and Chesapeake Utilities Maryland — that are competing with Eastern shore Gas for distributorship around the county.
Since Eastern Shore Gas already has pipelines running into Ocean Pines that it could convert to accept natural gas, the company may have an edge in that area.
Thompson said that the arrangement for conversion in Ocean Pines would be done on a timetable of the awardee’s choosing. He said that in his experience homes that didn’t require pipe conversions were usually able to convert for around $500. In cases where costs are significantly more, Chesapeake Utilities could get special permission from the PSC to roll the cost of conversion into the bill over time. Failing that, he said, there are unregulated subsidiaries the company could call upon to finance the payments.
Under the agreement, which is also reviewable by the PSC, Chesapeake Utilities would pay the county $10,000 per year or $2 per customer, whichever is greater. While the PSC could require a different fee, Thompson said it was unlikely.
Hugh Cropper, representing Chesapeake Utilities, asked the commissioners to grant the company a non-exclusive franchise to bring natural gas into the county. They approved the motion to do so unanimously.
In other county business, the commissioners heard at the Worcester County Board of Elections a summary of why that body was considering moving the District 5 polling place from the Ocean Pines Volunteer Fire Department South Station to another location.
Election Director Patricia Jackson told the commissioners that the board had been considering the move since the OPVFD told them they were no longer welcome after the 2010 election. Among the places being considered are the Community church at Ocean Pines and the Ocean Pines Country Club.
“The board has not made any decision on this at all,” she said. “We have not made any decisions.”
Among other concerns were that a section near the fire department where some people park is unpaved, that the fire department wouldn’t allow use of the chairs or kitchen facilities, and that the acoustics make hearing difficult for the election judges. Another concern was that as in the event of a fire call the ensuing chaos caused as the firefighters grab their gear and the water dripping from the fire hoses upon their return could cause both a slip-and-fall hazard and possibly harm the electronic voting equipment.
But the biggest point of contention was that the state election judges manual the board of elections follows requires the election equipment be set up the night before. It would require all of the OPAVFD equipment to be left outside overnight and it is a point on which current president Steve Rosen said the department could not be moved.
“We would probably be happier if they weren’t there,” he said. “We’ll do what we have to do but if we didn’t have to do it, it would be good.”
Although the state rules are clear, there is, according to County Attorney Sonny Bloxom, an opportunity for the board of elections to rewrite the rules as they see fit, which was the course Commissioner Judy Boggs recommended.
She said a change was unneeded and would be an inconvenience that would likely hurt voter turnout, which in that district is nearly 75 percent. Boggs also said that since the election workers were paid, the inconvenience of the more than 4,000 people that vote there should be given more weight than the workers’ wishes.
Since the board is a state entity, the commissioners have no say in whatever the choice might be but all said they hoped the situation could be handled amicably.