COP26, the United Nations Climate Change Conference, brought about an international discussion on climate change and what roles countries should play.

This reckoning on the climate emergency is relevant for Montgomery County. In 2017, the Montgomery County Council declared a “climate emergency” and announced its plans to reach net zero carbon emissions by 2035.

As a young person and representative on the Maryland Youth Advisory Council, I realize our county must act rapidly to reach these climate goals to protect my future.

Montgomery County has taken some steps to reach these goals, such as releasing a Climate Action Plan (CAP) with detailed policy and advocacy steps to reduce emissions, but some other actions have, if anything, hindered climate change mitigation.

In February, the County Council passed ZTA 20-01, a plan to allow ground-based solar installations in the Montgomery County Council Agriculture Reserve, a 93,000-acre tract of land designated for farming.

Originally, this plan would have capped development at 1,800 acres, striking a reasonable balance between climate change mitigation and support for the local farm economy. However, it was amended because agriculture groups feared destruction of the farm economy.

While these concerns are understandable, the resulting bill excessively constrained utility-scale solar development. It restricted solar installations to only Class 4 soil, the least fertile of a 1 to 4 scale. Combined with issues regarding elevation and access to transmission lines, the bill severely reduced the number of parcels available for development.

Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, called it “the most unbalanced, anti-solar bill in the region.”

If such protectionist policies are upheld, science tells us that climate change will ultimately have a greater adverse impact on our farm economy than the immediate damage of more solar.

The investment firm Lazard determined that ground-based solar installations are cost-effective for electricity generation. The county must maximize their construction while ensuring a stable farm economy to meet the demands of this existential climate crisis.

The County Council should immediately revisit ZTA 20-01. It should be expanded to include Class 2 and 3 soils. The council also should fund a cover crop program for farmers.

Cover crops are plants grown during the non-growing season to preserve soil fertility and increase crop yields. Their inclusion in a revised solar plan would offset the loss of a few acres of cropland.

By encouraging their proper use, highlighting pre-existing benefits, and providing an additional $10 per acre per year benefit for farmers who use cover crops, we can provide for farmers and enable local investments.

Not only will this permit more solar development in the agricultural reserve, but my cost-benefit analysis suggests it will create millions of dollars in benefit for local farmers.

This proposal would be paid for through combined health and economic benefits of decarbonizing developing solar energy use. Solar installations are taxed as personal property.

Additionally, the County Council can collaborate with NGOs to partially fund the projects and utilize a one-time excise tax on 10% of the property value of the land used for solar development.

This plan isn’t going to pass without youth involvement. Given that time is running out, my generation needs to vociferously lobby lawmakers who support forward-thinking bills.

Youth groups also need to speak out about ZTA 20-01, as they were notably absent from the original negotiations. When council members hear these youth voices, they should understand that this legislation isn’t just “zoning policy,” but rather a verdict on our future.

Samuel Desai, 16, is a student at Richard Montgomery High School in Rockville. He is an executive board member of the Maryland Youth Advisory Council.

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