Solar farm proposal delayed so council can hear from community

Solar farm proposal delayed so council can hear from community

County wants input from land owners, farmers before allowing more arrays

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Montgomery County has preserved about 93,000 acres of farmland for its Agricultural Reserve after around 40 years. Now, some County Council members are pushing for about 1,800 acres of it to be opened for large solar farms.

A zoning amendment introduced in January has met opposition from the county’s farming community, which has voiced concerns about how solar arrays in other counties have encroached on agricultural land.

The council discussed on Tuesday whether more input was needed from the community on the details of the amendment, which 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.

The amendment would allow solar facilities to be the principal use of land in the AR zone with approved site plans.

Council Member Hans Riemer said the county has to put a significant amount of clean energy into the grid if it is going to be part of a solution to supply cleaner energy.

Riemer said experts have calculated that the county needs a goal of 2,500 megawatts of solar power to help supply cleaner energy.

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

“This proposal would add up to about 300 megawatts . So it’s not even the entire amount by a long shot,” Riemer said. “But it is a realistic piece that would make a big difference.”

The zoning change would also allow for a dual use of the land, such as for grazing herds or certain crop production, in addition to solar panels. Concrete, except for transformer or electrical equipment pads, would be prohibited.

Solar panels would not be allowed in stream buffers and wetlands, or on certain steep slopes, and topsoil could not be stripped from the site. The solar panels would need to be screened or hidden if they were located within 200 feet of a neighboring house.

Solar installations on rooftops and parking lots can only ever supply between a quarter and a hal f of the capacity the county needs, according to Riemer, who proposed the solar expansion along with Council Vice President Tom Hucker.

“That is only ever a partial solution. … We need to do community solar. We need to allow it everywhere in the county. No part of the county should be exempt from being part of this solution,” he said.

During a public hearing on the amendment on March 3, residents and others argued in favor of the solar panels to minimize climate change, while others said it was premature to allow larger solar farms in the ag reserve until other options are researched.

In submitted testimony to the council for that hearing in March , County Executive Marc Elrich said the zoning text amendment was “premature” and suggested that urban sites could be better sites for more solar arrays, with the advancement of technology, such as solar sidewalks and roads.

The council had a work session on the zoning amendment on Tuesday. Nearly the entire discussion was focused on whether to seek more feedback from the community.

Council President Sidney Katz requested that a task force or group be formed to provide more community feedback.

“I’m not here to drag this out,” he said. “I’m here to give someone sufficient time, whether it’s four months, whatever it is — sufficient time to give us their suggestions, which I don’t believe at this point, we have heard enough of.”

Council Member Nancy Navarro agreed that more voices needed to be incorporated in the discussion. She said she had a renewed appreciation for preserving the ag reserve because of the growing problem with access to food as a result of the pandemic.

The county should also have a fuller understanding of how to leverage solar installations in urban areas, she said.

Katz said solar farms are especially of interest on agricultural land because it’s cheaper than other land.

“Because you can’t build on it, the land is cheaper. That is exactly where people in the solar industry would go first. That to me, is a concern. It’s not to say that they shouldn’t have anything in the ag reserve,” Katz said, adding that the council hasn’t talked enough with people who would be most affected.

Riemer said he would be fine with the joint committees leading a discussion with certain stakeholders, but he wasn’t confident it would lead to any compromises.

“I think the committee process and the council could [come to a compromise],” he said.

Council Member Gabe Albornoz said timing is a concern, because if discussions dragged on for six months, the council would be focused on the budget planning process.

“I’m not sure how much more information we need, [but] I think there would be a benefit of a group coming together,” he said.

The council did not set a specific plan for getting community feedback, but agreed to have a joint committee of council members in charge of organizing the meetings.

The council expects to formally consider the amendment again in January.

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

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