Booming Solar Industry Raises Local Land Use Preemption Concerns

A Bay Journal article (2016-10-28) highlighted some of the challenges posed by utility scale solar projects on prime agricultural lands and open space. According to the article, Maryland currently has 508 megawatts of solar generation capacity (ranked 11th nationally) with another 1,792 megawatts expected to be installed over the next several years. As previously reported on Conduit Street, one of MACo’s 2017 Legislative Initiatives is to ensure local zoning and land use concerns play a role in the siting of “dispersed” energy facilities, such as solar, that can be placed on farmland and other open areas with little additional infrastructure. Preemption of local land use has become a flashpoint that has led to litigation and likely legislation.

The article noted ongoing issues in several counties:

Kent County, on Maryland’s Eastern Shore, is fighting to keep a solar farm from locating on prime farmland; the farm was originally proposed as wind energy, but changed to solar because of opposition to the towering turbines. Talbot County officials, in part as a response to the nearby Kent County fight, imposed a six-month moratorium on solar farms last spring to develop a policy on siting such facilities and limiting their size.

In metropolitan central Maryland, the Baltimore County Council voted in October to impose a four-month moratorium while it considered similar rules. County Executive Kevin Kamenetz has since vetoed the measure, though he said that in principle, he supports delaying new solar projects to consider local restrictions on them.

And in Western Maryland, Washington County has gone to court to fight a Maryland Public Service Commission decision to allow a solar array on 86 acres near the Pennsylvania border.

Concerns over solar range from taking farmland out of production to changing the scenic view; in some cases, county officials don’t oppose the idea of solar, but want to make sure they have policies to direct where it might go and limit friction with neighbors. …

Talbot officials’ vote for a moratorium in a region where property rights are nearly sacred, “was a remarkably brave thing for them to do,” said Bill Boicourt, a University of Maryland oceanographer who chairs Talbot County’s planning commission. “The most important thing for me was how to allow the activity, which we all thought was a good idea, but how to limit it on a larger scale so it doesn’t take over the county.”

The article highlighted that Maryland’s topography (particularly on the Eastern Shore), level of solar irradiance, and financial incentives make solar an attractive proposition.  The article  further described existing or pending solar projects throughout Maryland and Virginia and discussed the state of the solar industry both regionally and nationally.

The article offers several perspectives regarding the current lack of local land use integration with large scale solar projects:

“That seems to be the thing that we’re hearing the most concern about from farmers — that active, productive farmland might be taken out of production,” said Valerie Connelly, executive director of the Maryland Farm Bureau. …

Kevin Hemstock, who serves on the Millington Town Council in Kent County, said he supports solar energy. But solar farms like the one proposed for Kent should not get to bypass local zoning.

“They should play by the same rules as everyone else, and I feel they’re trying to bypass those rules,” he said. …

[People’s Counsel Paula] Carmody said she thinks there’s a way to have both solar growth and local control over destiny. But for now, she said she expects more debate in the near term over whether local zoning can control project size and location. The legislature may well tackle that question next year.

“Will local governments be totally pre-empted? Can they enact zoning regulations to stop construction? That is the question that will be moving up through these processes,” she said. “It just makes sense to try to figure out a way to kind of balance local concerns.”

Useful Links

Prior Conduit Street Coverage

Hear more about the issue of siting energy generation facilities and potential local land use preemption during The New Wild, Wild West? Energy and Open Space panel at the 2016 MACo Winter Conference.

Learn more about MACo’s Winter Conference: