On Tuesday, the Montgomery County Council is scheduled to consider legislation to permit the use of solar projects on an equal footing with farming in the county’s Agriculture Reserve. This bill is written in the form of a Zoning Text Amendment, which sounds like a harmless modification, but it is a radical transformation of the existing Agricultural Reserve.
The Agricultural Reserve was created by the Montgomery County Council 40 years ago. Widely viewed as one of the best examples of farmland conservation policies in the United States, the Ag Reserve, as it is affectionately known, is an agricultural cornerstone for the farm-to-table movement in the Washington metropolitan region and contributes almost $300 million to the county’s economy annually.
The pending legislation would initially permit 150 solar projects to be located on 1,800 acres of land. These projects would not only upend the economics of agriculture in the county, but they also may change the quality of agriculture land so it cannot be easily returned to farming.
As with most important public issues, the way forward is not black and white. A diverse county council-appointed working group examined this issue. A number of the participants proposed a compromise to require that solar projects complete a conditional-use approval process much like that for cell towers. This latter approach requires that projects be evaluated on their merits and impact. Although not part of the current zoning code, conditional-use approaches could also add accountability to permitted projects by including periodic project regulatory reviews, allocation of costs and benefits among stakeholders and environmental impact.
This proposal to reshape the Ag Reserve is not the only such large scale rewrite of the county’s land-use policies and Master Plan underway. The county council has already adopted a plan to allow developers of high-rise commercial and residential projects on Metro station sites to forgo payment of real estate taxes for 15 years if they meet certain criteria.
Montgomery County is nationally recognized for its ability to balance priorities such as diversity and growth against potential constraints such as environmental needs and climate change. In point of fact, the county’s planning board has underway a fulsome effort to review and revise the county’s Master Plan, known as Thrive Montgomery 2050.
Make no mistake: We need to consider changes and initiatives required to transform our county and its economy and to advance social and environmental objectives. But we don’t need to consider them now, especially amid a pandemic when we cannot effectively bring stakeholders together in constructive dialogue.
We celebrated America’s commitment to democracy when we inaugurated the 46th president of the United States. However, democracy is not an event; it is a process. It involves shared objectives; careful consideration of a wide range of perspectives and interests, advice of experts and the voices and commitment of citizens; and, most important, resolutions that the public views as fair, balanced and moving in the right direction.
In a world in which the cry for survival comes from the planet itself, we will have even more challenges in the future to find balanced and durable resolutions. American norms and institutions organize the will of the people into the resolution of common problems.
Those norms and institutions need to be revitalized to create a very different future. We threaten the success of that very project if we make irreversible decisions in haste today that limit our choices for the future.