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Montgomery County approves limited solar development in agricultural reserve

Dominion Energy’s Scott Solar Farm in Powhatan, Va. In Maryland, Montgomery County lawmakers approved a limited amount of solar development in the county’s agricultural reserve. (Steve Helber/AP)

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 county 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.

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Maryland Del. Kumar P. Barve (D-Montgomery), who chairs the House of Delegates Environment and Transportation Committee, had urged county council members 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 can 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 over the next decade, 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.”

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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.

With the support of 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 evening, 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 as appropriate,” he said.

Council member Craig Rice (D-District 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 voted for the amended zoning change said it will allow the county to simultaneously generate more solar energy and preserve its agricultural community. But two trade groups for solar developers say news of the amendments has already prompted companies to cancel lease agreements with local farmers and consultants.

Tidwell, the climate activist, said he was disappointed in the council members.

Riemer said that while the final vote was not what he was hoping for, he thinks 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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