The Washington Post

Montgomery allows limited solar developmen­t in agricultur­al reserve

- BY REBECCA TAN rebecca.tan@washpost.com

The Montgomery County Council opened the door for solar farms in the suburb’s 93,000-acre agricultur­al reserve Tuesday, voting 7 to 2 to approve a zoning amendment that would allow such developmen­t in the protected area for the first time since its formation 40 years ago.

The decision came after more than a year of heated debate that pit environmen­talists and solar developers against farmers and preservati­onists, and divided the all-democratic council.

In the days leading up to the vote, environmen­tal activists and a state delegate pushed lawmakers to withdraw the zoning amendment, saying various changes had effectivel­y made it counterpro­ductive to expanding renewable energy.

County Council member Hans Riemer (D-AT Large), the architect of the original amendment, agreed, saying Tuesday that the proposal had drifted from what he had envisioned, becoming significan­tly less bold and possibly setting a bad precedent for zoning changes elsewhere.

Along with Council President Tom Hucker (D-district 5), Riemer voted against approving the amendment in its final form.

Council member Evan Glass (D-AT Large) said, “This proposal is not as strong as it should be or it needs to be, but it does open the door a step — a tiny step.” Glass had lobbied for Riemer’s original bill but voted to approve the amended one.

The council agreed to require a report on solar developmen­t in the reserve in two years, after which the rules could be altered.

The amendments to the zoning change restrict where solar developmen­t may occur and require companies to undergo additional legal vetting before being able to set up shop.

A coalition of farmers, civic groups and conservati­onists supported the amendments, saying they would help ensure that solar projects are “appropriat­ely scaled.” But leading environmen­tal groups said they were the equivalent of “poison pills” that would bar the vast majority of solar projects in the reserve.

“Frankly, I don’t think I’ve ever seen such bad energy policy about to be made. . . . This is the most unbalanced, anti-solar bill in the region,” Mike Tidwell, director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network, said in an interview Monday. Tidwell’s group and the Montgomery County Sierra Club backed the original version of the zoning amendment.

Maryland Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-montgomery), who chairs the House of Delegates Environmen­t and Transporta­tion Committee, had urged the County Council in a letter to “withdraw what has become a potentiall­y harmful bill,” saying, “If a local government of Montgomery County’s stature and progressiv­e reputation can turn its back on affordable community solar, other Maryland counties might likely follow suit.”

The disagreeme­nts tap into a growing source of tension in agricultur­al communitie­s nationwide.

With vast quantities of flat land, rural areas are ideal locations for solar and wind farms that produce the renewable energy needed to phase out fossil fuels and slow down global warming. But farmers worry that commercial energy developers could squeeze them out of their homes and livelihood­s. Some also contend that rows of metal solar panels or wind turbines could disturb bucolic vistas — or fragile ecosystems.

In western New York, at least a dozen towns have placed moratorium­s on solar projects after backlash from farmers. In Virginia, a Republican political consultant in 2019 led a successful campaign to block a 1,600-acre solar farm opposite her family farm. Across the country, residents have filed lawsuits against local government­s for either allowing or rejecting solar projects.

In Montgomery, a liberal suburb of 1 million where lawmakers vowed in 2017 to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 80 percent in 10 years, all parties say they understand the urgent need to address climate change. But they disagree on how it should be done.

Riemer’s initial proposal called for solar developmen­t on 1,800 acres — or about 2 percent — of the agricultur­al reserve, enough to power 50,000 households with renewable energy. It already included concession­s such as barring developmen­t on the area’s most fertile soil and capping the size of commercial farms, which is why, Riemer said, he was surprised to see the degree of pushback from farmers and conservati­onists.

“I didn’t expect it to be easy, but I didn’t expect it to be this hard either,” he said. “Eventually, we must have terrestria­l solar at a huge scale. . . . It will have to be a cornerston­e of our climate strategy.”

Groups that opposed the proposal in its original form, however, say they are not anti-sustainabi­lity. Caroline Taylor, executive director of the Montgomery Countrysid­e Alliance, said her group wants to see “solar with care,” which takes into account the role that farmers play in helping to build sustainabl­e food systems.

Backed by the alliance and other groups, council member Andrew Friedson (D-district 1) introduced an amendment that will ban developmen­t on not only the class of soil considered most fertile by federal standards but also the next most fertile, effectivel­y eliminatin­g 70 percent of the land available for solar installati­ons.

In a statement Monday, Friedson said he was wary of moving too quickly when it comes to zoning amendments that could have a lasting impact: “If we do too little . . . we can always return to it at a later date and slightly, methodical­ly and thoughtful­ly expand the amount of coverage.”

Council member Craig Rice (DDistrict 2) agreed, saying Tuesday that legislatio­n “can always be adjusted.”

Rice was behind a separate amendment calling for solar developmen­ts to be “conditiona­l use,” meaning that developers would have to seek approval for specific permits before being able to build solar farms, rather than just meet a set of requiremen­ts.

Rice, Friedson and other lawmakers who backed the amended zoning change said it will allow the county to both generate more solar energy and preserve its agricultur­al community. But two trade groups say news of the amendments has already prompted solar companies to cancel lease agreements in the affected area.

Riemer said that while the final vote was not what he wanted, the conversati­on over solar energy is only beginning.

“You cannot put the toothpaste back in the tube,” he said. “We’re going to keep pushing on this.”

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