Shruti Bhatnagar is president of the Montgomery County Group of the Maryland Sierra Club. Mike Tidwell is executive director of the Chesapeake Climate Action Network and the CCAN Action Fund.

Big promises create big expectations. A kindergarten teacher tells her students they’ll be reading books by spring. A husband tells his wife he’ll clean the garage by the weekend — finally.

And in Montgomery County, elected members of the Montgomery County Council tell voters there’s a “climate emergency” and greenhouse gas pollution will be cut 80 percent in 10 years.

That last promise was made in 2017. As voters — and as leaders of two of the biggest environmental groups in Montgomery — our expectations were sky-high.

But it is now 2021, and the county is running out of time to substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions while addressing racial equity issues that disproportionately affect communities of color and low-income communities on climate change.

Thankfully, a bill now before the council can finally get the ball rolling. It would allow a limited amount of farmland to be used to harvest sunlight in the county’s designated “Agricultural Reserve.” Solar panel production would be capped at no more than 2 percent of the reserve’s land — and most of the power would be distributed to low- and moderate-income households. This bill has the wonky name of ZTA 20-01 and has been put forward by council member Hans Riemer (D-At large) with support from council president Tom Hucker (D-Silver Spring) and Evan Glass (D-At Large).

The bill is right on time because the county’s own draft Climate Action Plan, released in December, makes clear that “decarbonizing” the electrical grid is the most important thing the county can do.

Thankfully the solar ZTA 20-01, after extensive discussion and deliberation, has been approved twice by a special joint committee of the county council by wide margins. It has also gone through a process of evaluation by a task force of diverse constituencies. It is now time for the council to act and pass this legislation with no weakening amendments. The vote is Tuesday.

Seems like a no-brainer, right? But weirdly, nothing about fighting climate change has come easy, even in this most liberal and environmentally chest-beating of counties in the D.C. region.

This modest and carefully crafted legislation — already reflecting compromise among farmers, environmentalists, solar companies and common citizens — is opposed by some critics who glamorize the Ag Reserve as some sort of Jeffersonian ideal of farm utopia. They say the rules of the reserve cannot be changed despite the growing impact of climate change. Opponents actively criticize solar power as an industrial behemoth that will destroy food production and actually harm the environment. Their solution is to subject solar projects to so-called “conditional use” permitting that will effectively ban community-oriented solar such as this. It is a poison pill that would lead to endless and often random court challenges that have nothing to do with climate change and equity.

And here’s the real question: If we can’t let farmers commit small parcels to solar panels for low-income families, then how will we ever solve the climate crisis? How will we accomplish the harder political tasks ahead of banning natural gas hook ups to new commercial buildings and requiring solar on all new homes and mandating radical efficiency gains everywhere and financing electric vehicle charging stations at every turn?

Fair enough, critics of farmland solar say, but the Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve is a regionally unique 93,000-acre space set aside decades ago to preserve family farms, encourage local food and protect the environment. Unfortunately, little of this has come true. Nearly 70 percent of crops raised there are food for the region’s unsustainable livestock industry. Meanwhile, sod farms — mass operations that literally peel off topsoil with nonnative grass for golf courses and suburban yards — are prominent in the reserve. Overall, the bigger farms that dominate the reserve actually vent more greenhouses gases into the atmosphere than they absorb through sequestration from trees and soils.

Conversely, the solar bill would help counteract these trends. Modest solar arrays would be required to have plantings of “pollinator friendly” plants under and between panels to help beneficial bees and wildlife. These perennial plants also absorb and sequester carbon deep underground, providing a two-for-one climate solution. Plus, when spaced far enough apart, panels can accommodate limited grazing for animals and room for table crops for people.

No one wants to turn the Ag Reserve into a giant solar farm. The solar ZTA 20-21 would cap the level at no more than 1,800 acres, or just 2 percent of the reserve, while bringing real benefits to farmers, the land, low-income ratepayers and the climate.

In life, when big promises are broken, people usually suffer. Cluttered garages and homes affect family health and safety. Kindergarten students who can’t read find their entire academic careers handicapped.

Montgomery County has been a leader on so many progressive issues — and passing this solar farming bill would be a step in the right direction to address climate change and bring community solar power to low- and moderate-income communities.

Read more: