2021 | Government

Divided council supports limits on solar farms in agricultural reserve

Under amendments, land available for solar would drop by 70%

File photo

A year-long debate over whether solar farms should be allowed on a portion of Montgomery County’s 106,736-acre Agricultural Reserve seems to be nearing an end.

A zoning amendment first introduced in January 2020 proposed opening 1,800 acres of the reserve for large solar farms.

But the amendment was met with opposition from the county’s farming community, which voiced concerns about how solar arrays in other counties have encroached on agricultural land. Environmentalist groups, though, have strongly supported the allowance.

The amendment was previously supposed to be up for a vote in mid-October. But the timeline was pushed to late January because some council members wanted more input from the community on details of the amendment.

The amendment would allow for larger solar collection systems in the Agricultural Reserve (AR) zone than are currently there.

Solar panels are now allowed as an accessory use that produces no more than 120% of onsite electrical needs. The amendment would change it to 200% of onsite need, which could open the way for larger solar arrays.

An estimated 2,500 megawatts of solar power is needed in the county to help supply cleaner energy. The new proposal would add up to about 300 megawatts.

One megawatt of solar power is capable of powering about 164 homes, according to the Solar Energy Industries Association.

But on Tuesday, the majority of the County Council supported amendments that would cut the amount of land that could be used for the solar farms by about 70%.

The council was scheduled to vote on the zoning change on Tuesday, but the vote was delayed until Feb. 2.

Council members instead took straw votes on three possible changes to the zoning amendment, as an indication of preliminary support, according to Sonya Healy, a spokeswoman for the council. The measures still require actual votes.

The council was split on the first amendment, which would cut down on the amount of land that would be available for solar panels.

The overall zoning proposal would prohibit solar farms on environmentally sensitive areas and Soil Classification 1 soils. Soils in the county are organized by class, with Class 1 being the most prime for agriculture.

Council Member Andrew Friedson proposed the amendment to expand the prohibition to Class 2 soils, as well.

But Christopher McGovern, a GIS manager for the county’s planning department, said excluding Class 2 soils from solar panel use would significantly diminish the available land for the arrays.

If parks, water, steep slopes, and other environmental barriers are removed from the roughly 106,700 acres of reserve, about 33,440 acres remain.

Of those acres, the acreage in each soil class is:
● 992 acres (Class 1)
● 18,892 acres (Class 2)
● 10,561 acres (Class 3)
● 2,996 acres (Class 4 and above)

A solar facility rate at 2 megawatts would require about 15 acres.

If soil Classes 1 and 2 are removed from availability, 110 eligible parcels would remain — or about 1,650 potential acres.

If only Class 1 were removed, 377 parcels would remain — or about 5,655 potential acres.

County staff members estimated that if Class 2 soils were excluded and certain geographic aspects, such as land near power lines, were taken into consideration, about 41 parcels would remain. But usually, only 1 of every 20 landowners is willing to allow solar farms on their property, which could lower the potential number of parcels to 2.

The council supported the amendment on soil types 5-4.

Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz and Council Members Andrew Friedson, Nancy Navarro, Craig Rice and Sidney Katz voted in favor.

Council President Tom Hucker and Council Members Hans Riemer, Will Jawando and Evan Glass voted against the amendment.

Albornoz said he supported the amendment because of an interest in protecting the reserve.

“While I do understand that it will significantly restrict where we can put solar, it doesn’t mean we can’t put solar in the Agricultural Reserve,” he said. “It also gives us the opportunity to learn from this. … This is another way for us to assess and evaluate exactly what the impacts of this technology will be as it relates to the Agricultural Reserve.”

Riemer said the zoning change to power 50,000 homes would be shrunk to the size of what would be placed on an office building if Class 2 soils were not included.

“It’s a frankly devastating proposal and if it’s combined with additional restrictions, I’m not sure the additional restrictions matter anymore, because there’s nothing left. … This is a prohibition. This is not a ‘figure out how to work through it,’” he said.

Glass said the initial proposal already limited solar panels to 2% of the reserve, creating a safeguard.

Climate change should motivate the council to allow more solar panels, he said. If climate change continues to affect the environment, there won’t be a reserve, he added.

“That [amendment] reduces the already small area by 70%. … At that point, we will continue reducing the footprint, so that’s just not feasible and we don’t even make a dent in whatever might come to help mitigate our climate change,” he said.

Navarro said the amendment struck a balance in “competing needs” that the county has.

Katz said that he wants commercial solar, but he also wants the reserve to prosper. “This isn’t a poison pill,” he said of the amendment.

The council also supported two other amendments.

The second amendment would affect any solar facilities larger than 200% of onsite use but smaller than 2 megawatts. Those would be a conditional use and not a site plan approval use with all of the standards and reviews currently listed in the site plan elements.

The council supported that second amendment 6-3, with Hucker, Riemer and Glass opposed.

The third amendment would require a report in 2023 to assess impacts of installations, looking at farms, the surrounding environment, land prices, carbon emissions, and other elements.

The council unanimously supported the third amendment.

Briana Adhikusuma can be reached at briana.adhikusuma@bethesdamagazine.com.