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Getting in the solar zone

General contractor George Brown had the perfect place to put up a solar farm in West Friendship. He even had an energy consulting company lined up to lease the land and make it happen, Baltimore-based BithEnergy Inc.

From left, Nixon’s Farm owner George Brown, Bith Energy Director R. Daniel Wallace, Howard County Farm Bureau President Howard Feaga and Randall Nixon stand on a hayfield where they hope to begin construction of the county’s first commercial solar-energy farm.

But something crucial was missing: the zoning.

Brown and Bith were hoping to put the solar panels on 50 to 60 acres of Nixon Farm. Howard County’s zoning laws, though, limited solar farms to 10 acres.

Carney, Kelehan, Bresler, Bennett & Scherr LLP, a Columbia-based law firm, set about to change that.

“We wanted to be able to provide more clean, affordable energy — more than 10 acres worth,” said Tom Meachum, an attorney at the law firm. “That requires changes in zoning. They didn’t have any provisions for solar farms. We had to help educate the county about that.”

It took a few months and several rounds of revisions, but on Feb. 4 the new zoning law will take effect and Brown will be a significant step closer to his goal.

Give and take

Brown, who owns Total Construction Services Inc. in Ellicott City, bought 96 acres of Nixon’s Farm at auction in 2010 for $2.5 million. His intention was to develop it, while keeping the farm’s well-known wedding- and catering facilities.

He said he chose a solar-power farm because it would not damage the land or create noise or air pollution.

“The land is still the land,” Brown said. “It’s a way we can make money off this project and do something good for the community and not destroy the land. What’s not to like?”

Bith Energy’s track record on solar projects includes a four-megawatt solar and biomass system in Somerset County and a 700-kilowatt system at the Chimes International campus in Baltimore, as well as several systems in Massachusetts. For Nixon’s Farm, the company envisioned a 10-megawatt system.

First, Bith Energy talked to the Howard County Department of Planning and Zoning about the proposal to determine what the reception in the county would be for such a project.

“We knew solar energy was something coming,” Brown said. “We saw it was viable [in the county] and we asked the county, ‘What can we do?’”

County officials were immediately interested, Brown said. “They knew they wanted to do this, but had no clue how to do it.”

In July, Bith recruited Meachum to draft the zoning amendment.

Meachum knows about zoning — the process and the give-and-take philosophy — and what he didn’t know solar panels, he was prepared to learn.

“That way you can anticipate and be prepared to address questions that people could have,” Meachum said. “It’s very important to educate yourself in the subject matter.”

Meachum and Bith drafted an amendment, submitted it to the county’s Department of Planning and Zoning and revised it based on the feedback they got, Meachum said.

Then, they officially filed the amendment with the county.

And got ready to revise it some more.

“When you file it, it becomes public,” Meachum said. “You start to get public feedback so you listen to that and see what do to address some concerns.”

The draft went before the Howard County Planning Board and then headed to the County Council for consideration. The council members discussed the amendment and heard from residents during a work session, and researched data and other commercial solar farms around the country.

“I think when I first saw the proposal I was excited by the opportunity,” said Councilman Calvin Ball. “From that point forward, the point was to try and align with best practices around the country.”

The measure had the support of the Howard County Farm Bureau, but some other residents were not so keen about the size and appearance of the panels and the lack of specifics in the original proposal.

Only about four people came to the County Council hearing with concerns and most of them were taken into account, Meachum said.

“There were definitely concerns with the initial proposal … regarding height and size,” Ball said. “And anytime you have a relatively new technology to a jurisdiction — we don’t have a lot of solar farms — you have some concerns on the aesthetic nature and what to open the door to in terms of the future. Everyone was heard and we really balanced those concerns with the project.”

Meachum and Bith took the feedback into account and made changes before resubmitting the amendment to the council.

“The essence of it is give and take, which is not unusual for any bill,” Meachum said.

In the initial draft, there was no size restriction for solar farms. In response to community concerns, a limit of 75 acres was added to the amendment. The maximum height of the panels was also reduced from 25 feet to 20 feet, and the council asked that the panels not block any views of historic buildings or scenic roads in the county, Meachum said.

When the final vote was taken on Dec. 3, all the council members but one were in favor of the amendment. The sole exception abstained.

County Executive Ken Ulman signed the bill two days later, even though he vetoed another package of amendments on Dec. 13.

Overall, the zoning amendment process in this case was relatively low-key in comparison to other zoning amendments Meachum has worked on, he said.

With the final amendment, solar panels generating up to 10 megawatts of power can be built on rural properties between 10 and 75 acres as a conditional use, said Meachum.

“What it will allow us to do now is build to a scale where we can get economies of size that will give us a better financial model in which to build this plant,” said Robert L. Wallace, president and CEO of Bith.

First, though, the project itself still needs to be approved.

Meachum said they are hoping to go before the county hearing examiner in late spring and to install the panels by the fall.

The solar farm will be completely commercial and Bith will sell off the energy in two-megawatt chunks, Wallace said.

The community hall and catering business already on the farm will remain open, Brown said. They also hope to build a discovery center in the next three to five years, where students and people can to learn about solar energy and how solar panels work.

“We want this to be a showcase for Howard County and we intend, once it’s built, to make it available for people to come visit,” Brown said.

And there could be even more solar farms in the future. Brown said he and Bith are in early talks with Carroll County to build more commercial solar farms in the area.

“I’m not a real green freak, but all this is good stuff,” Brown said.