Since 1980, Montgomery County has preserved 93,000 acres of farmland along its northern, western and eastern borders — a sweeping tract known as the Agricultural Reserve.
On Tuesday, County Council Member Hans Riemer called it “one of the most consequential decisions we’ve made as a county.” But the commitment to land preservation had to be balanced with another priority, he said — the county’s promise to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80% by 2027 and 100% by 2035.
“That is a major task, and it will require major changes,” he said. “Changes that go beyond anything we’ve contemplated previously.”
The comments prefaced the introduction of a new zoning text amendment that would allow up to 1,800 acres of the Agricultural Reserve to be used for larger solar installations. Riemer said the amendment would preempt current zoning, which only allows for accessory solar panels on agricultural land.
In practice, that means individual properties can install equipment that produces no more than 120% of the onsite energy consumption, said Jeremy Criss, director of the county’s Office of Agriculture.
But Riemer’s zoning amendment — co-sponsored by Council Members Tom Hucker and Craig Rice — would let community solar companies use agricultural land for whole fields of panels. The installations would generate power for the companies’ subscribers, which Riemer said could include commercial buildings and apartment complexes.
“As this sense of crisis around the climate has grown, we need to make decisions that will have the most immediate impact,” Riemer said in a phone interview on Wednesday. “And the most immediate thing we can do right now is to get coal- and gas-powered energy off the grid.”
The amendment comes amid other new climate initiatives suggested by local leaders.
In September, County Executive Marc Elrich proposed regulations that would require all new homes to have rooftop solar panels. The administration has promised to unveil other policies in the coming months, including new energy performance standards for large buildings and a commercial composting pilot program.
But Riemer said new construction standards could take decades to make an impact on the county’s emissions. The zoning amendment, on the other hand, could produce enough solar energy to power 54,631 households if companies took advantage of all 1,800 acres of available agricultural land.
Riemer said that would lead to a roughly 4% reduction in the county’s overall emissions. But the amendment still requires buy-in from the county’s agricultural producers, who haven’t taken a formal position on the changes.
Bob Cissel, director of Montgomery Agricultural Producers — a nonprofit coalition of farmers — said the group discussed its concerns with Riemer before the zoning text amendment was introduced. He declined to outline specific concerns, but said the group was cautious about changes that would reduce the overall availability of farmland.
“We’re very sensitive to zoning that could affect our ability to be agricultural producers,” Cissel said in a phone interview. “Such as losing land to solar fields. And thinking about the type of land that would be lost to solar fields.”
The county’s farming community, a tight-knit group with contacts throughout the state, already had concerns about solar arrays on in other counties, Criss added. In Frederick County, Mount St. Mary’s University stripped and sold roughly 135 acres of topsoil in Emmitsburg for a new solar facility. Other jurisdictions signed 40-year leases with solar companies, limiting the availability of agricultural land for decades.
Riemer adjusted the zoning text amendment to address some of those concerns, Criss added. The amendment requires companies to minimize grading and soil removal on any agricultural land used for solar fields. The sites must be designated as “pollinator friendly” by state standards — which requires flowering cover crops to be planted under the arrays — or be maintained to allow grazing farm animals to use the fields.
But farmers still have concerns that the amendment could lead to bigger changes on agricultural land.
“The concern is, will this create a precedent for community solar to be further expanded in the future?” Criss said. “The legislation behind the agricultural reserve specifically states that agricultural is the preferred land use. And once solar panels are installed, that land is taken out of farm production.