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Counties & Energy Companies Offer Perspectives on Energy Facility Preemption

A lengthy Baltimore Sun article (2016-10-15) provided an overview of the energy facility siting and local land use preemption issue that will be examined during the 2017 Session. As previously reported on Conduit Street, MACo has adopted the siting of “dispersed” energy generation facilities as one of its 2017 Legislative Initiatives. Unlike traditional power plants like coal, oil, or nuclear, these new types of facilities can be placed on a variety of farmland or open space with little additional infrastructure and include technologies such as wind, solar, gasification, or small incinerators. The article noted the explosive growth of solar facilities in particular in the last several years:

Energy companies, lured by a state policy that encourages renewable electricity generation and riding a larger industry boom, are flocking to Maryland farmland to build massive solar installations. Developers proposed 11,000 new solar projects in the state last year, more than twice as many as in 2014….

Currently, the Public Service Commission (PSC) is the state agency primarily responsible for the siting of energy generation facilities above a certain generation size. While the PSC has not yet taken a position on MACo’s proposal, the article cited a former PSC chairman, who argued that the authority should remain with the State. But given the new types of technologies involved, county officials and MACo are concerned that local comprehensive planning goals and the nature of a community can be arbitrarily upset if local zoning, preservation easements, and environmental requirements are ignored:

“The reason the PSC is given the power to make those decisions is that many times, local officials, if not their constituents, take the position, ‘It shouldn’t be here. It should be in someone else’s backyard,'” said Russell Frisby, who led the [PSC] from 1995 to 1998. “The authority really should remain with the Public Service Commission.”

But in rural communities that have already seen housing developments splinter and absorb farmland, solar farms are viewed as a new threat. …

“I don’t think it’s right that the PSC can just come in and say, ‘Guess what? We’ve just approved 48 500-foot wind turbines in your county,’ and plunk it down,” [Talbot County Councilman Dirck Bartlett]  said. “What that would do, without any local control, could really reshape an area forever.”

The article also discussed the competing challenges posed to individual farmers – a potentially lucrative and easy source of income during a time when they may be struggling versus keeping agriculture a viable industry in the state.

Some farmers weren’t interested — anything that breaks up open cropland makes farming more difficult and more expensive. …

Agricultural land is ideal for the energy projects because it is wide and flat, and already cleared, said Sebastien Houde, an assistant professor of agricultural and resource economics at the University of Maryland, College Park. And solar developers know they can match or exceed farmers’ income per acre, Houde said.

The article summarized two “flashpoint” cases in Kent and Allegany Counties that led to the broader discussion of energy facility siting:

Kent County officials designated a commercial and industrial zone years ago for renewable energy projects and other new industries. But at least one solar developer is looking outside it. Now the county is leading a fight against the [PSC’s] power. …

The problem for Kent officials and residents isn’t that it’s a massive solar farm — it’s that it’s not in the right place. …

In Allegany, Dan’s Mountain Wind Force wants to build 17 wind turbines along the county’s highest ridge.

The group, a subsidiary of Laurel Renewable Partners LLC in Greensburg, Pa., originally planned more, but scaled back amid eight years of back-and-forth with Allegany officials concerned about impacts to scenic mountain vistas and the county’s 911 communications antenna. …

The developer is petitioning the commission for a permit overruling local rules, as it appeals the zoning decision in court.

In filings with the commission, Allegany officials say they don’t necessarily even oppose the wind project. But they “vehemently” object to what a lawyer for the county calls “efforts to circumvent Allegany County’s land use and zoning authority.”

MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp stressed that counties generally support renewable energy and other types of “dispersed” energy generation technology like gasification, but that they should not arbitrarily disrupt long term county plans for growth and land preservation. Instead they should be part of that long term thought-out framework:

The Maryland Association of Counties is preparing policy proposals for the 2017 legislative session in Annapolis aimed at settling such conflicts.

“I think what we would look for is a simple acknowledgment that these types of facilities should be subject to local zoning,” said Les Knapp, legal and policy council for MACo. “Their location should be considered and in line with how counties are growing and developing.”

Reaction from energy companies has been mixed to the MACo proposal and county concerns and the article summarized several viewpoints:

David Friend, Laurel’s CEO, says the state authority is key because any change or extra hurdle imposed at the county level could chill the development of new projects.

“These development processes take a long time,” he said. “If they change the rules, you’ll never build another power station or power line in Maryland again.” [Author’s Note: MACo is not questioning the authority of the state to cite traditional large-scale power plants or transmission lines.] …

Solar industry officials said they want to cooperate with local communities as they seize new opportunities.

“The industry is really willing to work with the counties,” said Dana Sleeper, executive director of the Maryland Solar Energy Industries Association. “Folks get a little bit scared when there’s something new.”

The article also provided an overview of New Jersey’s recent incentive-based approach to encourage solar development on brownfields.

Useful Links

Prior Conduit Street Coverage

MACo’s Weekly County News & Notes…from Twitter

The social media site Twitter has become a fast-moving setting for news, information, and advocacy on public affairs. We welcome followers of MACo’s own twitter feed for updates from the Conduit Street blog and other MACo hot topics, and often use Twitter to reach our own audience, and to hear from others following the same issues as county leaders.

Here are some tweets that caught our eye this week:

For more news and information:

Follow MACo
Follow Executive Director Michael Sanderson
Follow NACo
See Tweets on #mdpolitics

Fighting Fire with Fiber? Connecting to Next Gen 9-1-1

Next Generation 9-1-1 issues are of top concern for county governments that are seeking to improve and enhance their handling of 9-1-1 calls from cell phone users with technology that will increase response times, location accuracy, and allow text, photo, and video data to be shared by callers to First Responders on their way to the emergency.

As Maryland and its counties move toward implementing a Next Generation 9-1-1 network, one key issue that must be addressed is how to fill the void left by Verizon and its vast communication infrastructure. As fiber optic cables replace copper wires, local governments are faced with the enormous task of upgrading their existing technologies in order to facilitate Next Generation 9-1-1. Recognizing the challenges associated with this transition, local governments have been collaborating on how to best handle fiscal and policy issues associated with this new technology.

At this year’s MACo Winter Conference, you can learn about the best practices, challenges, and implementation of Next Generation 9-1-1.

Here are more details:

Title: Fighting Fire with Fiber? Connecting to Next Gen 9-1-1

Description: As 20th-century technologies phase out, counties must reinvent their emergency call systems. One key issue that must be addressed is how to fill the void of legacy systems that are no longer supported – through building costly and complicated fiber optic and wireless services to replace them. While the technology to implement Next Generation 9-1-1 is available now, there are many issues that local governments must work through relating to technology standards, the process of transition, governance, and funding. In this session, panelists will highlight local progress, identify, gaps, and offer ideas on how to best move forward with building a statewide Next Generation 9-1-1 network.

Date/Time: Wednesday, December 7, 2016; 2:00 pm – 3:00 pm

The MACo Winter Conference will be held December  7-9, 2016 at the Hyatt Regency Chesapeake Bay Hotel in Cambridge, Maryland. This year the conference’s theme is “An Ounce of Prevention.”

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference:

Tari Moore & Robert Hodge Honored For Their Service to Cecil County

Cecil County Council President Robert Hodge (L) & County Executive Tari Moore (R)

Over 1oo people turned out to honor outgoing Cecil County Executive Tari Moore and Council President Robert Hodge for their public service at a community reception on October 20. Presenters and well wishers included representatives from United States Representative Andy Harris and Cecil’s state delegation, county council, municipalities, and school board.

As the County’s first Executive and Council President, both were praised for their leadership in successfully transitioning Cecil County to a charter form of government, improving internal and external political relationships, and setting a high bar for public service and performance going forward. Each also had long list of personal accomplishments highlighted, including Moore’s work on the opioid crisis and Hodge’s work on establishing a functional animal control agency.

County officials and several other representatives presented Moore and Hodge with gifts in gratitude for their county service. Both Hodge and Moore have been active in MACo, with Moore concluding a term as MACo’s First Vice President.

MACo Offers Concerns to EPA on Phase III WIPs & Communication

naco logoMACo Associate Director Natasha Mehu joined county representatives from the other five Chesapeake Bay Watershed States to hear an update from the United State Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) on the status of the Bay Total Maximum Daily Load (TMDL) and Phase III Watershed Implementation Plans (WIPs) and offer feedback on the EPA’s communication and outreach efforts. The October 12 meeting was organized and hosted by the National Association of Counties (NACo) in Washington, DC.

Region 3 Administrator Shawn Garvin provided an overview of  the EPA’s current TMDL efforts while other EPA officials discussed plans for the upcoming Phase III WIPs. A link to EPA’s WIP presentation is below. One of the most controversial EPA proposals is to assign pollution reduction loads directly to local governments as opposed to the states. (Maryland is the only Bay state to have county loading assignments but those assignments were made at the state and not the federal level.)

Mehu joined the other county representatives in expressing concern about a direct local assignment from EPA, noting that Maryland’s counties have already made significant progress and investment in the goals mandated by the State. On the topic of communication and outreach, Mehu praised the accessibility of the local EPA Bay Program office but expressed frustration with the Region 3 office, asserting that a direct and regular communication process was needed with county governments. EPA did indicate a willingness to improve its communication and data sharing with counties going forward.

MACo will continue to address TMDL and WIP issues at both the state and, in conjunction with NACo, the federal level.

Useful Links

EPA Phase III WIP Presentation

Controversial “Standing” Bill Receives Legislative Briefing

A panel of local government representatives voiced their objections over proposed legislation that would alter the requirements for standing in comprehensive zoning cases during a briefing by the House Environment and Transportation Committee’s Land Use and Ethics Subcommittee on October 18. “Standing” is the legal right to bring and maintain a lawsuit.

The briefing focused on failed legislation (HB 243/SB 166) during the 2016 Session. As previously reported on Conduit Street, MACo opposed the legislation. The legislation was introduced in response to a recent Maryland Court of Appeals holding, Anne Arundel County, Maryland v. Steve Bell (filed April 21, 2015).

At the briefing, MACo Legal and Policy Counsel Les Knapp presented an overview of the two types of standing at issue (taxpayer and property owner) and asserted that the Bell decision properly clarified which form of standing applied to comprehensive rezoning. From MACo’s testimony:

In the Bell decision, the Court correctly concluded from previous decisions that taxpayer standing should apply to primarily legislative land use actions (such as comprehensive zoning), while property owner standing should apply to administrative, executive, or quasi-judicial land use actions (such as piecemeal rezonings, special exceptions, and nonconforming uses). …

HB 243 would override the well-reasoned arguments of the Bell decision and instead require property owner standing for comprehensive rezoning decisions. This would create serious legal and policy consequences….

Knapp also briefly noted the potential consequences should the legislation pass, including: (1) an increase in plaintiffs and rezoning litigation; (2) a slowing or stopping of the comprehensive rezoning process; (3) additional challenges to Smart Growth-friendly redevelopment and revitalization projects; (4) whether challenges under the legislation were severable; and (5) forcing property owners that support a rezoning into litigation to protect their own property rights.

Also testifying in opposition to the proposed standing legislation were Maryland Municipal League, homebuilder, and commercial builder representatives. Representatives from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, 1,000 Friends of Maryland, and several plaintiff law firms testified in support of the legislation.

Useful Links

HB 243 / SB 166 of 2016

Anne Arundel County v. Bell Case

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of Standing Issue

Board of Public Works Approves $17.7 M in Rural Legacy Grants

A Maryland Department of Natural Resources press release (2016-10-19) announced that the Board of Public Works unanimously approved 15 Rural Legacy Program grants across the state. The grants total $17,663,385 and would preserve 4,615 acres of farmland, forests and open space. From the press release:

“These grants provide a cost-effective way to permanently conserve culturally, ecologically and historically important parcels of land in our state,” said Natural Resources Secretary Mark Belton. “Protecting and preserving these important and irreplaceable tracts of land helps us retain our agricultural and rural character, and aids our efforts to meet our Chesapeake Bay restoration commitments and goals.”

Established in 1997, the Rural Legacy Program is designed to preserve large tracts of productive and valuable agricultural and forested lands that contain exceptional features by acting through local government and private land trust sponsors, which in turn work with willing property owners in 31 locally-designated rural areas situated in every county.

To date, the public-private partnership program has permanently protected 87,811 acres through conservation easements.

The press release also discussed the passage of HB 462 of 2016, which stabilized and increased funding for various land preservation programs, including Rural Legacy and Program Open Space, by $60 million over the next two years.  (MACo supported the final version of HB 462).

Useful Links

Rural Legacy Website

HB 462 of 2016

IRS: Maryland Losing Taxpayers

New IRS data indicates that Maryland lost tax-filers between 2014 and 2015, reports The Baltimore Sun. The state saw a net loss of nearly 8,000 households during that time: 68,384 families left Maryland, while 60,429 moved in. About 63,356 families relocated from one place to another within the state. Most movers are aged 35 or younger, according to the data.

The IRS data indicates that Maryland saw a net loss of 3,124 households between 2013 and 2014, and 5,596 households from 2012 to 2013. Last year, Conduit Street reported on continued losses of families from Maryland from 2011 to 2012, as analyzed by the Regional Economic Studies Institute of Towson University.

The most recent IRS data includes the inflow and outflow of tax-filers on a county-by-county basis, which is available here: click on “Maryland” to only see data for Maryland counties.

Q&A: Keeping Up With School Construction

MACo has adopted four top priorities for the 2017 General Assembly Session. This post outlines MACo’s school construction priority. For additional information about MACo’s priorities, read all of MACo’s top initiatives.

Q: Why is School Construction a County Issue?

A: Schools have a vital role in every community and are important to quality of life throughout Maryland.

County governments seek to promote a better quality of life throughout Maryland and county elected officials know that schools are an integral facet of every community. The quality of schools is not only important to families and children, but to those who teach and work at schools, those who attend classes or play sports events at schools in evenings, and even those who use schools as their polling place or their emergency management shelter.

Schools have a strong effect on property values, and can draw higher-income families to neighborhoods, increasing income-tax bases. In many ways, schools are the heart of a community. As described further below, county governments have responsibility for local school construction costs. In Maryland, unlike most states, local school boards are fiscally-dependent on state and county funding and cannot raise their own revenue through taxes or levies.

Q: Has Maryland Been Keeping Up With School Construction?

A: No, not really.

School construction costs have risen rapidly in the past ten years for a variety of reasons, including labor markets, state and federal regulations, and educational program changes, such as in increase in the use of technology in the classroom.

At the same time, several areas of the State have experienced student enrollment increases. Population estimates indicate that Maryland will experience record high school enrollments over the next ten years due to the baby boom prior to the recession.

Despite rapidly increasing school construction costs, the state’s commitment has not increased, leaving the difference in funding required to meet basic school construction needs the responsibility of local governments, straining local budgets.


Figure 1 Annual funding for the State’s main school construction program has not changed significantly over the past several years.

screenshot-2016-10-20-13-46-06Figure 2 Construction costs have increased dramatically over the past several years, as illustrated by these estimates from the Public School Construction Program.

As described by the Public School Construction Program, if the State’s commitment had kept pace with increasing school construction costs over the past decade, the State’s year-to-year goal for school construction should have been $475 million per year, rather than $250 million.

“In the summer of 2003, a study of the cost to bring all Maryland schools to minimum standards of performance indicated a need for a $3.85 billion total expenditure. If a similar study were undertaken today and the same or equivalent deficiencies were found, the total cost to correct the deficiencies beginning in the summer of 2017 would increase to almost $7.4 billion. The $2 billion that was defined as an eight-year goal for State funding in the Public School Facilities Act of 2004 would need to be increased to approximately $3.8 billion, or about $475 million per year over eight years.” – Public School Construction Program presentation to the Capital Debt Affordability Committee

Several county governments experienced major cost-overruns of school construction projects in this time-period. In some counties, the state’s funding commitment had already been set, and could not be adjusted upwards to accommodate rapidly rising costs, leaving even more expenses for county governments. For more information, see our previous posts:

Q: How Are Counties Helping Out?

A: County governments provide more funding for school construction than the state or the federal government.

K-12 capital needs are the second largest category of county government spending, second only to spending on public works, which includes essential infrastructure such as roads, bridges, drinking water and sewer systems. In fiscal year 2016, K-12 capital spending made up 28% of county capital budgets.

In FY 2016, annual county capital budgets for K-12 capital projects totaled more than $1 billion, while state funding for school construction was approximately $338 million. Federal funding for school construction is minimal.

The 2016 State of Our Schools Report found that Maryland’s state funding for school construction was 26% over a 20 year period, ranking it 15th among states in school construction support.

While the state provides more school construction funding to counties with less wealth, all county governments are responsible for the many costs that are not eligible for state funding. For example, the State does not contribute any funding towards the acquisition of property to build a school, or towards a school’s interior furnishings, including classroom technology.

Q: Did the State Ever Contribute More for School Construction?

A: Yes.

It was not always this way. The state used to provide funding towards many more public school construction costs. As described by the Public School Construction Program 2016’s Capital Improvement Program, the State contribution was generally about 95-99% of the project cost when the school construction program began,

When the Public School Construction Program first started, the State paid for architectural and engineering fees and movable furniture and equipment in addition to the construction costs of the project. The State contribution was generally about 95-99% of the project cost. . . In the mid-1970s the responsibility for architectural and engineering fees was shifted to the localities, and the cost of movable furniture and equipment was similarly shifted in the mid-1980s. Starting in the mid-1980s a shared State-local cost formula was implemented to determine the State participation in eligible school construction costs. The formula took into consideration the relative wealth of a jurisdiction.

Q: How Can Maryland Meet School Construction Needs?

A: County governments have proposed the following suggestions for making the most effective use of taxpayer dollars while meeting the needs of school construction:

Increase State funding: Maintain and strengthen the State’s commitment to school construction capital funding in recognition of increases in school construction costs. Integrate student technology expenses and other costs resulting from State mandates into the State’s funding formula for school construction.

Develop Incentives for Effective Spending: Create incentives for use of cost-effective measures including repeating the same school design, cost-effective construction management practices, and remove impediments to alternative financing.

Streamline School Construction Processes: Examine the timeline for school construction and consider ways to better coordinate the timeline with local budget processes so that local planning efforts are streamlined and state funding is not left in limbo.

Reduce Regulatory Cost-drivers: Assess the cost-drivers of modern school construction, such as achieving new environmental and energy standards, satisfying heightened needs for technology, ensuring student safety, fulfilling community resource needs, and integrating evolving teaching methods. Then, determine if there are more cost-effective means to achieving regulatory aims and provide options for pursuing less costly alternatives within state law and regulation. At the same time, the state should review and revise labor laws and regulations that apply to the school construction sector, including the prevailing wage law and regulations. Delaying the effective date of state laws and regulations that may increase school construction costs will allow for study of potential effects.

Create a Statewide Maintenance Fund and Promote School Maintenance: Provide a predictable and accountable State-level commitment to school facility maintenance funding. This funding will enable school board spending on maintenance at 2% of current replacement value, a widely accepted methodology for protecting capital investments.

Apply for the 2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize – Submissions Due November 3

The National Association of Counties (NACo) encourages communities to apply for the Culture of Health Prize.

Applications are now open for the 2017 RWJF Culture of Health Prize. An annual award presented by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF), the RWJF Culture of Health Prize honors communities that are beacons of hope and progress for healthier people, families and places.

In 2017, up to 10 winners will each receive a $25,000 cash prize and the chance to share their accomplishments and their stories with the nation. Communities—urban and rural, tribal, large, small and in between—are invited to apply.

To learn more about the prize, selection criteria, application process and to see the stories about previous winners, visit The deadline is November 3, 2016.

Prize Criteria:

  • Defining health in the broadest possible terms
  • Committing to sustainable systems changes and policy-oriented long-term solutions
  • Cultivating a shared and deeply-held belief in the importance of equal opportunity for health
  • Harnessing the collective power of leaders, partners, and community members
  • Securing and making the most of valuable resources
  • Measuring and sharing progress and results

For more information, visit