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Maryland counties grapple with controlling growth of solar farms

The crux of the issue is that counties do not have the final say over larger-scale solar projects, such as solar farms, that generate two megawatts or more of power. (AP File Photo)

Anne Arundel County has imposed a ban on industrial solar operations, then  enacted a moratorium on using agricultural land for solar fields.

Frederick County has adopted temporary moratorium on the projects, Kent County has battled a proposed solar array outside of the Eastern Shore city of Chestertown, and Montgomery County has adopted a heavily amended bill that restricts where solar projects can be built on farmland.

Meanwhile, in Washington County, a years-long, much-watched legal battle over who has the final say over a huge solar generating facility is still working its way through the state legal system.

Across Maryland, as clean energy advocates and the solar industry work to meet the state’s ambitious mandate of having at least 14.5 percent of the state’s energy produced by solar power by 2030, counties are battling what they see as an infringement of their longstanding control over land use and zoning.

The crux of the issue is that counties do not have the final say over larger-scale solar projects, those generating two megawatts or more of power.

The counties have some input – and how much their input weighs is a source of much debate – but the state Public Service Commission  has the final decision, and that rankles many county officials.

“This is an issue that’s absolutely growing,” says Michael Sanderson, director of the Maryland Association of Counties. “This is an issue in almost every corner of the state.”

“This is an issue that’s absolutely growing,” said Michael Sanderson, director of the Maryland Association of Counties. “This is an issue in almost every corner of the state.”

Many county officials, he said, feel their input on the large-scale solar projects is too often ignored.

“They’re seeing farmland gobbled up for some 120-acre silicon projects and they want to look at it, but the company says, ‘We don’t need to talk to you, we’re just going to the PSC and build what we want’,” Sanderson said.

The threat of farmland being “gobbled up” by solar panels is what prompted the Frederick County Council to adopt legislation four years ago restricting the siting of solar farms on farmland. The legislation has blocked the construction of a handful of such farms, although more than one such decision is tied up in court.

“The farming community was quite unhappy with the amount of agriculture land (solar farms) would be removing from agriculture,” said Frederick County Council Member M.C. Keegan-Ayer, who sponsored the original legislation.

“The farming community was quite unhappy with the amount of agriculture land they would be removing from agriculture,” says Frederick County Council Member M.C. Keegan-Ayer. (Submitted Photo)

She said she and others are considering tweaking the legislation, which she now believes might be too restrictive, although they might not bother.

“The big question is, is it worth putting the effort into this if the PSC is going to just give it lip service,” Keegan-Ayer said.

Sanderson said MACO supports legislation that would clarify — “in our direction” – the counties’ role in the decisions on large-scale solar projects.

He conceded that the politics of the issue are tricky. “Clean energy is good politics for an awful lot of local leaders,” he said. “To slow this down and put more vetoes in the hands of local governments might feel like it’s moving backwards.”

Not everyone agrees that counties are ignored in the process — or that giving the counties total control is a good idea.

With so little land in Maryland suitable for large-scale solar projects, subjecting these projects to local land-use decisions “would very quickly frustrate Maryland’s in-state solar development goals,” said Cyrus Tashakkori, chairman of the Utility Scale Solar Energy Coalition of Maryland, a coalition of solar companies.

The state, he argued, already has struck the proper balance between the competing interests on the issue, giving the counties “substantial input” on where the projects are built.

Proper balance or not, Tashakkori’s coalition has worked with the PSC, local governments and others to draft new regulations that would boost early coordination between developers and local governments.

Those regulations, due to be voted on next month,  set up a new pre-application process in which developers would be required to give local jurisdictions advance notice of their projects and notify the jurisdictions of any material changes. Counties would have the opportunity to conduct their own review and provide feedback on the project.

The rule, according to Joey Chen, senior advisor to the PSC chairman, “tries to open a path and leave more opportunities for them (the counties) to start their review early, and a way to provide input to the applicant and the PSC.”

David Beugelmans, an attorney with the Baltimore law firm of Gordon Feinblatt who represents solar companies looking to build in the state, said that in his experience, local jurisdictions’ positions on solar proposals already are “one of the most, if not the most, important factors” in PSC decisions.

“There is a tendency to see this as a binary question –- the state doesn’t pay attention to counties,” he said. “But it’s more complicated than that. There are a bunch of factors involved.

“This is something the state’s worked hard to work through,” he added. “There will probably be some controversy in the future, but I’m confident we can work through the issues.”