MACo Testifies on Solar Siting, Forest Conservation Act

MACo Legal and Policy Analyst Les Knapp testified before the House Environment and Transportation Committee on the Maryland Forest Conservation Act (FCA) and the siting of utility scale solar energy facilities on November 1, 2017. As previously reported on Conduit Street, the Committee announced that the briefing would follow up on discussions and legislation considered during the 2017 Session. Knapp testified against making changes to FCA in isolation of other forest programs and data and stressed the need for a balanced approach to solar siting that included recognition of local government planning and zoning.

MACo Testimony on FCA & Solar Energy Siting

Forest Conservation Act

Knapp noted that during the 2017 Session, MACo had opposed HB 599 Forest Conservation Act – Exemption, Reforestation Rate, and Forest Conservaton Fund – Alterations, which among other things increased the minimum reforestation rate to 1 acre for every acre removed.

Knapp: (1) reiterated the reasons for MACo’s opposition to the bill; (2) urged that data from all of Maryland’s forest programs should be considered and not just data from the FCA; and (3) stated that MACo could look at some aspects of the FCA, such as the creation of regional or statewide mitigation banking. From MACo’s testimony:

MACo opposed HB 599, noting the significant fiscal challenges the bill would pose for local governments, citizens, developers, and utilities. The costs for local government development and redevelopment projects will increase. The bill would also lead to higher utility costs on local governments, businesses, and citizens of the state.

Furthermore, MACo questioned the need for the bill, noting that Maryland is maintaining its tree canopy coverage established under Maryland’s recently established “No Net Loss of Forest” policy. The policy, along with other reforestation and afforestation requirements found under the Chesapeake Bay Program and stormwater treatment best management practices, were implemented long after the FCA was created. MACo believes all forest conservation programs and efforts should be considered rather than narrowly looking at FCA data.

MACo remains adamantly opposed to the provisions of HB 599 for the reasons stated in this testimony. However, MACo acknowledges there are implementation problems with the FCA. One particular frustration voiced by local program managers is the lack of flexibility in spending fee-in-lieu money on reforestation or afforestation projects. Projects can be very challenging and time-consuming to assemble, and large fee-in-lieu balances can accumulate while a project is being put together.

One potential solution is the creation of a regional or statewide mitigation banking system. MACo would be willing to consider and could potentially support legislation enacting such a system. MACo is also willing to consider other alternative reforms to the FCA that do not modify the reforestation rate.

Representatives from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF) testified that the FCA should focus on “primary forests” – large tracts of contiguous forest that can be located in rural or urban areas. CBF may propose to alter the reforestation rate when developing on these primary forests. CBF also stated that it was looking at mitigation banking and other ways to allow fee-in-lieu monies collected by local governments to be spent.

A representative from the Department of Natural Resources testified that Maryland must maintain a tree canopy of 40% under Maryland’s No Net Loss policy. Based on the most recent Chesapeake Bay Conservancy and United States Forest Service data, Maryland has a tree canopy coverage of 51% and between 2011 and 2016 actually saw a small increase in tree covered land (about 1,000 acres or 0.1%).

Solar Energy Siting

Knapp also reiterated MACo’s concerns with HB 863 State Agricultural and Conservation Property Interests – Solar Facilities (Right to Solar Farm) from the 2017 Session. HB 863 would have allowed broad solar development on lands subject to a Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation (MALPF) easement, a Maryland Environmental Trust (MET) easement, or management by the Rural Legacy Board. Knapp highlighted the importance of solar projects but stressed that their siting must be balanced against other equally valid long term land use concerns. Knapp also referenced the work of MACo and many other stakeholders on HB 1305 of 2017, which gave local governments a greater voice in the siting of all utility scale energy generation facilities, including solar. From MACo’s testimony:

MACo also opposed HB 863, noting that while well intentioned, the bill would upset both state and local government long-term land use planning and land preservation goals that have been in development for decades. The State and local governments work closely to identify properties or areas suitable for MALPF easements or a Rural Legacy designation (the same is true with MET properties, but to a slightly lesser extent). These decisions are based on sustaining production agriculture and the secondary industries associated with it, protecting natural and scenic lands, and preserving unique rural cultures. Once these are lost, they are permanently gone. For all of its benefits, ill-planned and rushed solar development can have the same negative impacts as other forms of development.

MACo recognizes the role utility scale solar does play in helping to meet Maryland’s green energy goals and last session worked with a broad range of stakeholders, including the Public Service Commission (PSC), local governments, environmental groups, land conservation and historic preservation groups, energy developers, and public utilities to draft and pass [HB 1305 of 2017] that provided a thoughtful and reasonable approach to the siting of utility scale solar facilities. MACo would oppose any proposal that would disrupt the hard work and consensus-driven approach of that legislation.

Representatives from the solar industry voiced frustration with variations in how counties approached solar development and noted that the primary limitation was transmission capacity within the electrical grid. Several solar developers complained about county involvement, with a representative from One Energy stating that most counties do not recognize the value of solar energy projects. A representative from Cypress Creek Renewables argued for more consistent local land use requirements.

However, 1000 Friends of Maryland and other stakeholders testified that solar siting must be balanced out against preserving agricultural land, historical sites, and environmentally sensitive areas. They noted that solar development can be done on brownfields and greyfields and that small scale projects – rooftop and commercial scale – should be encouraged.

The Maryland Sierra Club agreed with removing development roadblocks for brownfields and rooftop solar. The Sierra Club stated it was developing model zoning regulations for counties to use in proactive solar planning. The Club raised concerns about transparency issues in different counties and counties setting size limits on individual solar projects (the Club was still considering its position on total acreage cap for all solar projects).

Committee Chair Kumar Barve announced that he was not going to be reintroducing HB 863. Barve stated that it was important to keep solar competitive with natural gas. Barve also stated that it will be “a big challenge” to increase Maryland’s Renewable Energy Portfolio standard to 50% during the 2018 Session and that increasing the standard to 100% was not going to be considered for the Session.