Frederick County Council Approves Solar Bill

Solar arrays — albeit in a limited form — could soon be allowed on agricultural land in Frederick County after the County Council approved a bill to govern their size and placement Tuesday.

In a 4-2 vote, the council OK’d a compromise bill more than a year in the making that will allow solar arrays of up to 75 acres on certain parts of agricultural land in the county.

According to The Frederick News-Post,

“I think we are beginning the process of embracing solar in Frederick County, but it’s going to take us a little while,” the bill’s sponsor, Councilwoman M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D), said before voting. “This is where we are at the time.”

She was joined in supporting the bill by Democrats Jessica Fitzwater and Jerry Donald, as well as Council President Bud Otis, who is unaffiliated.

Republican councilmen Tony Chmelik and Billy Shreve voted against the bill; the council’s third Republican, Kirby Delauter, was absent from the meeting.

Shreve offered four amendments to the bill, none of which ultimately passed. He also read statistics from a poll conducted on behalf of Coronal Energy — one of the solar companies looking to install a large solar array on Frederick farmland — that showed a majority of the residents they contacted would support “more large scale utility solar farms.”

“The last thing we want to do is kill green jobs. We don’t want to kill clean energy,” Shreve said. “I don’t know why the Democrats up here are going this direction and absolutely do not support solar energy in Frederick County. This bill proves it.”

But Keegan-Ayer said the bill allowed the industry — and those farmers who want to be part of it — to move forward in a measured way, something that seemed unlikely when the county was considering more restrictive legislation in 2016 and earlier this year.

The new bill creates a floating zone for large commercial solar arrays that can be applied to agricultural properties from 10 to 750 acres. Solar panels can cover only 10 percent of the tillable acres of the parcel or multiple contiguous parcels, up to 75 acres. The bill also prevents commercial solar development on land with prime farmland soils, as identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s soil survey of Frederick County.

For land within a 2-mile buffer along each side of U.S. 15 from Frederick to the Pennsylvania border, solar applicants would have the burden of ensuring that the projects would not be visible from the road, which is designated as part of the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area.

Commercial solar development on limited industrial and general industrial zones is still allowed. Homes and businesses would be allowed to have accessory panels to generate up to 200 percent of a property’s energy usage.

Keegan-Ayer and Chmelik each discussed a proposal from the solar industry that would have implemented a county-wide 1.5 percent cap on agricultural solar fields, as opposed to the cap on individual parcels in the bill.

Capping it at 1.5 percent of farmland would have been about 3,000 acres, Keegan-Ayer said.

“So 3,000 acres of our prime farmland could be taken out of production to put solar panels on it. I’m not sure that that’s truly where we want to go yet,” Keegan-Ayer said.

Chmelik, though, shared a concern that the smaller parcels could lead to a sort of “solar sprawl” with many smaller fields dotting the landscape.

“Do I want to see one large solar array, or do I want to pass multiple ones on my way?” Chmelik asked, imagining a drive across the county. “… I can’t support it because I think it’s going to, in the end, potentially cause us to have this patchwork of solar arrays all over, rather than being able to concentrate them in certain areas.”

Donald said he originally supported more restrictive legislation, but came around to supporting this bill.

“This is one of those situations where people kind of came together and came up with the best plan they could. And sometimes that’s what we have to go with,” Donald said, noting the newness of the industry in the county.

The bill will move on to the county executive’s office. Unless vetoed, it will take effect in 60 days, according to the county charter.

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