2021 | Government

County approves limits for expansion of solar farms in Agricultural Reserve

Opposition disappointed as potential land for solar drops

Solar panels

A solar array installed at Craters of the Moon National Monument in Idaho.

Image via Flickr: National Park Service (Public domain)

A yearlong debate over whether larger solar farms should be allowed on part of Montgomery County’s 106,736-acre Agricultural Reserve culminated Tuesday with council members approving an expansion that was smaller than some hoped.

The zoning amendment, which passed 7-2, was first introduced in January 2020. It proposed opening 1,800 acres of the reserve for large solar farms, a significant expansion from what is allowed now. Under current zoning, only small solar installations, such as rooftop panels, can be built.

But the expansion in the approved amendment significantly cut back what was first proposed.

The County Council passed the zoning change, but also approved amendments limiting the expansion, which resulted in the potential land for solar farms to significantly drop from the original proposal.

Council President Tom Hucker and Council Member Hans Riemer, who spearheaded the initial zoning amendment proposal, voted against the zoning amendment, saying the limitation was too severe.

Council Members Evan Glass and Will Jawando agreed that the amendment should not have cut the potential land, but said any boost in solar arrays to increase clean energy would help.

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

Solar panels were previously allowed as an accessory use that produces no more than 120% of onsite electrical needs. An estimated 2,500 megawatts of solar power is needed in the county to help supply cleaner energy.

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

The original zoning change proposed prohibiting 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.

On Jan. 26, the council voted 5-4 to expand the prohibition to Class 2 soils, as well. Hucker, Riemer, Jawando and Glass voted against it.

During Tuesday’s meeting, Riemer expressed disappointment with that land reduction.

In a statement sent to constituents on Wednesday, Riemer said the initial proposal would have generated enough clean energy to power more than 50,000 homes, while allowing farming to continue on the same land.

He wrote that the changes made to the proposal “may result in very little if any solar.”

“As a result, I voted ‘no’ because I am concerned that rather than a small step forward for Montgomery County, it may be a large step backward for Maryland,” he wrote.

Riemer said the new ban on Class 1 and 2 soil would have been too restrictive. He proposed a revised approach that would allow Class 2 soil, opening more potential land to be used.

As a trade-off, the maximum number of acres for solar would be 600 instead of 1,800. Those acres would be subject to the county’s conditional use policy.

“Taking that approach, I think, is in the spirit of compromise. I’m still very concerned that conditional use will be a barrier that will be too high, but I think it’s worth — well, we don’t have a lot of alternatives,” he said Tuesday.

Riemer’s amendment failed 5-4. Council Members Sidney Katz, Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Craig Rice and Nancy Navarro opposed the amendment.

Last month, county staff members said that if parks, water, steep slopes and other environmental barriers are removed from the roughly 106,700 acres of reserve, about 33,441 acres remain.

Of those 33,441 acres, the breakdown for 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.

With soil Classes 1 and 2 removed, 110 eligible parcels remain — about 1,650 potential acres.

Removing only Class 1 would have resulted in about 5,655 potential acres, or 377 parcels.

The land needed near power lines would further reduce it to about 41 eligible parcels.

But according to staff members, 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.

Rice said the council members supporting restrictions were not standing in the way of solar.

“By doing anything today, we are allowing solar to move forward,” he said. “Now, it may be restrictive depending on whatever the restrictions may be and the steps that folks might have to take in order to make a solar project work. It may be a little bit more expensive than they had originally hoped or planned. But the reality is that that option will be there that is not there now.”

Navarro said the legislation opens the door for solar to be tested.

“This issue of protecting the Agricultural Reserve for me has always been important, but I do believe that it is important, as well, to try certain things and to at least open the door to test certain things,” she said. “To me, that’s what we have in front of us.”

Glass said county officials want to increase renewable energy and replace fossil fuels. But that goal should be turned into action, he said.

“This bill, as originally drafted, was an important first step to meeting those climate goals,” he said. “It was limited to 2% of our Agricultural Reserve and unfortunately, during the course of this legislative process, the amount of land was diminished significantly.”

Glass said Riemer’s alternative amendment was “sensible.” But he said he still would support the zoning proposal without it because he wasn’t elected to take “protest votes.”

“I know that some will claim victory when one or two solar installations get built,” he said. “But that is not victory because we need to do so much more. A few solar installations is not the goal of this [zoning text amendment]. It’s the starting point.”

Hucker said industry experts and environmental groups have told the county that as amended, the proposal is “basically a symbolic, and not a substantive, action that won’t result in meaningful amounts of arrays in the [Agricultural] Reserve, which was the purpose of the bill.”

Under the zoning change, solar facilities larger than 200% of onsite use but smaller than 2 megawatts 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 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 county’s farming community has voiced concerns about how solar arrays in other counties have encroached on agricultural land. But environmentalist groups have strongly supported the allowance.

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