Baltimore County Solar-Farm Bill Withdrawn

Baltimore County councilman Wade Kach withdrew legislation Tuesday that would have regulated the emerging use of solar facilities on rural lands, saying council members could not agree on limits for the size of such projects. The seven-member council was set to vote Tuesday evening on the measure — which would have addressed issues such as height and setback regulations — but Kach withdrew it instead.

As reported by The Baltimore Sun,

The original bill limited solar installations to no more than 20 acres, or half of a property, whichever was smaller. Kach said some council members wanted to increase the size limit to 35 acres, which he said is the equivalent of 27 football fields.

“If you all can envision the Ravens football field, multiply it by 27, that is the size that some on this council believe would be appropriate for the rural part of Baltimore County,” said Kach, a Cockeysville Republican whose district covers the northern part of the county.

Kach also said he expects legal challenges to proposed solar projects.

The legislation was proposed amid growing interest from farmers who want to lease their land to energy companies.

The council heard concerns from rural residents who say the facilities would be an eyesore, and from those worried it would take fertile farmlands out of production.

MACo has adopted energy facility siting as a legislative initiative priority for 2017. A new generation of power facilities – from solar farms to emergent technologies such as biomass or gasification – could be freed up to ignore local zoning and oversight. This decision threatens local land use control; long term planning efforts; and the important rights of communities to guide their own historic, agricultural, and residential character.

Useful Links

Baltimore Sun Article

PSC Utility Law Judge Denies Controversial Solar Project in Kent

A Kent County News article (2017-01-11) announced that a utility law judge for the Public Service Commission (PSC) has proposed denying the application for the Mills Branch Solar project in Kent County for a Certificate of public Convenience and Necessity (CPCN). The proposed order would effectively halt 60 mega-watt/370 acre project, which has generated local controversy. Kent argued that the project went against its zoning, which does include sites for utility scale solar projects. The project’s developer Apex Clean Energy, argued the PSC could preempt local zoning and that benefits of the project warranted the preemption. From the article:

In the 50-page opinion, Judge Dennis Sober wrote, “I find the evidence in support of the granting of a [CPCN] falls short of proving that the Project meets the standard of Public Convenience and Necessity. I find that the weight of the evidence pertaining to the location of the Project is more negative than positive in its persuasive value of creating benefits to (Kent County) and Maryland.”

Sober said the testimony of witnesses from Keep Kent Scenic, a group formed to oppose the project, and the county government was more persuasive than those of the applicant, Apex Clean Energy of Charlottesville, Va. Opponents of the project cited the loss of farmland from crop production and the negative effect of the project on the viewscape and historic sites in the vicinity as reasons to deny the application.

Also, Sober wrote, the staff of the Maryland Public Service Commission “under-valued the importance of the opposition of the local government.” He said the county’s opposition was based on “a reasonable application of land use policies” that are based on local knowledge and experience.

Sober wrote, “Local control over the amount, location, and type of development must be respected by the PSC when there is no weight of evidence of need or benefit to outweigh the local opposition. The weight of the evidence of harm being caused, if the project is built, was significant and was a major factor in my decision to deny the application.”

However, Sober’s proposed order reiterated that the PSC does have the authority preempt local zoning:

On April 26, 2016, a hearing on pending motions was held….In ruling on Kent County’s Motion, I found that the authority of the Commission does preempt the application of the [Kent County] land use ordinance. Therefore, [Kent County’s] Motion for a denial of the application was denied.

The Kent Count News article also included a reaction from Apex:

Apex released the following statement in response to Sober’s ruling: “Though we’re disappointed with the Proposed Order, we still believe Mills Branch Solar is a great project for Kent County and Maryland. Solar energy is good for the economy and good for the environment. This project can provide enough energy to power 10,000 homes, while offering local economic benefits and cutting harmful emissions. We appreciate the letters of support that have been submitted by over 100 Kent County residents, and we appreciate the unanimous support of the neighbors adjacent to the project. We believe that advancing Maryland’s progress toward its renewable energy goals has many benefits, and we’re currently reviewing our options and will provide more information when the time is appropriate.”

The proposed order does not become final until February 10. Before that time: (1) any party that was part of the proceeding may appeal; or (2) the PSC may modify or reverse the order or initiate further proceedings in the matter. Addressing the issue of PSC preemption of local zoning in light of changing energy generation technologies is a 2017 MACo Legislative Initiative. MACo will be introducing legislation shortly to give local zoning greater weight in the PSC siting process.

For further information on MACo’s proposal, please contact Les Knapp at 410.269.0043 or lknapp@mdcounties.org.

Useful Links

Proposed Order of PSC Utility Law Judge for Mills Branch Solar Project

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of Mills Branch Project

MACo 2017 Legislative Initiatives

Renewable Energy, Septics, Livestock Antibiotics Among MDLCV’s 2017 Initiatives

mdlcv-logo

Maryland League of Conservation Voters (MDLCV) blog post (2017-01-10)  highlighted the various issues MDLCV and the statewide environmental coalition it is part of will be advocating for during the 2017 Session, including renewable energy/the Clean Energy Jobs Act, antibiotic use in livestock, a statewide Styrofoam ban, and septic system regulations. From the blog post:

In conjunction with the statewide Maryland Climate Coalition and legislative champions in both the Senate and House of Delegates, we are working to override Governor Hogan’s veto of the Clean Energy Jobs Act, a bill ensuring that Maryland gets 25% of its electricity from renewable energy sources like wind and solar by 2020. Additionally, we have prioritized banning hydraulic fracturing in the state, a practice that has been linked to disastrous water and air pollution along with serious public health hazards.

We are also lending our support to limiting the non-therapeutic use of antibiotics in livestock to stop the spread of antibiotic resistant bacteria. These bacteria sicken millions of Americans every year and kill tens of thousands. We will also be working on banning Styrofoam statewide. This would be mean no establishment or institution can serve on Styrofoam materials, including restaurants and bans the sale Styrofoam containers or packaging peanuts.

We additionally join with our partners to protect smart growth policies related to septics regulations in reaction to the Governor’s statement this summer on rolling back on Chesapeake Bay restoration.

Related to all environmental legislation, Maryland LCV will be defending the budget for environmental agencies and enforcement of current environmental laws.

Additionally, MDLCV and the statewide coalition is hosting its 2017 Maryland Environmental Summit on January 26 at the Miller Senate Office building. Admission is free but you must register. The keynote speaker will be Baltimore City Health Commissioner Dr. Leana Wen. Various legislators are also scheduled to speak.

Useful Links

2017 Maryland Environmental Summit Registration

MDLCV Website

 

 

Sun Editorial: Large Scale Solar Needs Planning and Zoning

A Baltimore Sun editorial (2016-12-27) commented on the need for balanced land use oversight of large scale solar facilities so that both green energy and valid environmental and rural land use concerns are addressed. Allowing a greater role for local zoning in the location of utility scale energy generation projects is a 2017 MACo legislative initiative. Currently, the Public Service Commission has the authority to preempt local land use policies and counties are struggling with a “land rush” by energy developers to secure rural and open lands for potential utility scale energy sites. Several high profile cases in Kent and Allegany Counties have raised awareness of the issue, but the problem is statewide. The editorial specifically references legislation proposed by Baltimore County Council Member Wade Kach. From the editorial:

As much as solar power has invaded suburban neighborhoods rooftop by rooftop in recent years, the real growth in solar worldwide has been in larger “farms” where electricity is generated and sold to local utilities or perhaps to one or two large companies. Increasingly, builders are buying or leasing cheap rural land and then installing permanent solar panels. It’s a formula that may help promote renewable energy, but it’s not the best use of land in all cases. …

That’s why Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach’s recently-introduced plan to regulate rural solar farms is a timely effort. That’s not to suggest that solar power is to be discouraged. Quite the contrary. But a balance should be struck in promoting renewable energy while also preserving rural areas. …

Scale is another matter. The larger the solar farm, the greater the need for zoning oversight. That includes making sure solar farms aren’t adding too much impervious surface, replacing forest or natural habitat or causing stormwater runoff issues. It would be ironic, indeed, if a major installation of solar panels was found to be hurting the water supply by increasing soil erosion that pollutes local streams which pour into rivers and then the Chesapeake Bay. …

Like most important decisions in the planning and zoning arena, this is a balancing act that must respect the important goal of promoting solar energy while also protecting communities, preserving farm land and sparing historic districts from losing their integrity. We don’t know that the legislation as it’s currently written accomplishes the task satisfactorily, but it is certainly worthy of serious consideration and debate.

As part of its discussion, the editorial was also critical over a recent decision by Howard County to permit utility scale solar facilities on preserved farmland.

Tier Map, Conowingo Dam Among Top 10 Cecil County Issues for 2017

In light of the election of new Cecil County Executive Alan McCarthy, a Cecil Whig article (2017-01-04) identified 10 key County issues worth watching in 2017. Among the issues identified was the review of the County’s septic tier map and the submission of proposals to address nutrient and sediment pollution from the Conowingo Dam. From the article:

Tier map revisions?

Just before the end of 2016, the Cecil County Council adopted a former “placeholder” tier map into the county’s official comprehensive plan, despite an outcry from environmentalists who called the adopted map illegal.

The map is an important plan for the county’s future growth and preservation, but former County Executive Tari Moore chose to submit a map with the bare minimum placed in the most restrictive level for development. Farmers generally supported the decision to retain their lands developable value, but environmentalists voiced concern that it left too much vulnerable to development.

Before approving the map in December, the resolution was amended by a majority of the council to include a provision requesting that newly-elected County Executive Alan McCarthy appoint a committee to review the map with respect to the comprehensive plan and offer improvements.

It will be interesting to see who is chosen to work on such a committee and what their recommendations will be. Cecil County has long been one of the only holdouts against the tier map legislation and hasn’t found a groundswell of support from the Republican Hogan administration.

If improvements are not proposed, environmentalists have vowed to take the issue to court, meaning the tier map issue may be far from over.

Progress at dam

In July, Gov. Larry Hogan chose a cliff overlooking the Conowingo Dam to announce his administration’s sharpened focus on finding out more about the role Susquehanna River sediment plays in the pollution of the Chesapeake Bay.

Potential dredging of the sediment that has reached its storage capacity behind the Conowingo Dam is one preventative measure Hogan is considering, a position he reinforced Tuesday in the announcement of his 2017 environmental goals.

“It can’t trap any more sediment … I’ve said all along that Maryland should be leading the charge to clean up the Bay,” the governor said during his July Cecil County tour. “We must address the sediment issue, which has been ignored for years.”

After conducting Maryland’s first Conowingo Dam Summit at the Donaldson Brown Center in Port Deposit, Hogan announced the formation of a multi-agency work group to seek innovative solutions to reduce pollution that threatens the Chesapeake Bay. A formal request for information served as the tool to gather information from the private sector on potential solutions for the work group.

Recommendations from that RFI are expected to be among the ways Hogan works on environmental issues in 2017.

The other eight issues identified in the article included: (1) the political impact of President-elect Donald Trump; (2) job growth and economic development; (3) the upgrade of Fair Hill International’s equestrian center; (4) starting the public school year after Labor Day; (5) construction of a public recreation center in Elkton; (6) state legislation to expand use of the Hatem Bridge E-ZPass transponder to the Tydings (Interstate 95) Bridge during rush hour; (7) planning and development of the Basell research and development facility site; and (8) completion of two Maryland State Highway Administration traffic roundabout projects in Fair Hill and Elkton.

 

 

Fun Fact: Did You Know that Oyster Shells Formed New Land in Somerset County?

Question: Did you know that oyster shells formed new land in Somerset County?

It’s true! The Chesapeake Bay’s incredible wealth of seafood had long dictated the character of Crisfield, a city in Somerset County. Early Native Americans collected the abundant oysters with wooden tongs and dried their catch to use in trade with inland tribes. The white settlers gradually built up a network of fishing shacks and piers over the waters of Somers Cove, as the fishing community was then known. Centuries of dumping oyster shells in the marsh caused new land to form. The J. Millard Tawes Museum, down near the present day docks, has a glass plate set in the floor to reveal these oyster shell underpinnings.

somersetSource: Visitsomerset.com

Do you have a fun fact to share about your county? If so, please send it to Kaley Schultze to be featured in MACo’s weekly Fun Fact on Conduit Street.

Free Webinar Discusses: Using Signage to Attract Homebuyers & Growth, SCOTUS Sign Ruling Update

Sustainable City Network Logo

The Sustainable City Network is offering a free 1-hour webinar on January 12 titled: “Image Matters: How to Manage Your City’s Visual Identity in a Pro-Growth Environment.” The webinar will cover: (1) the use of signage in civic branding to attract new residents and growth; and (2) an update to the 2015 United States Supreme Court ruling (Reed v. Town of Gilbert) on sign ordinances. From a Sustainable City Network notice email (2017-01-03):

On Thursday, Jan. 12, Sustainable City Network will host a free 1-hour webinar featuring Grant Hayzlett, president of National Sign Plazas, Inc., who will explain how to establish and perpetuate a civic brand that attracts homebuyers and stimulates growth.

During the webinar we will discuss:

  • The sociology that drives the homebuyer experience;
  • How your civic brand score and community image affect willingness to live there;
  • The function of homebuilder directional signage and why they proliferate;
  • An update and explanation of the 2015 SCOTUS ruling governing sign ordinances;
  • An overview of uniform homebuilder sign programs and the associated benefits relative to the SCOTUS ruling;
  • An illustration of the best community development initiatives for pro-growth cities.

Register now to attend this live webinar on Thursday, Jan. 12, beginning at 11 a.m. Pacific Time (noon Mountain, 1 p.m. Central and 2 p.m. Eastern). (Please note your time zone!)

Useful Links

Register for Webinar

Sustainable Cities Network Website

Prior Conduit Street Coverage of Supreme Court Signage Ruling

Supreme Court Ruling – Reed v. Town of Gilbert (2015)

Critical Area Study Raises Local Variance & Enforcement Concerns

The Environmental Law Clinic at the University of Maryland’s Francis King Carey School of Law released a new report on variances and enforcement of Maryland’s critical area law by selected counties. The report criticized the lack of uniformity in the granting of variances at the local level and called for a greater oversight role by the Critical Area Commission for the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays (CAC). Maryland’s critical areas are those areas within 1,000 feet of the shoreline of the Chesapeake or Atlantic Coastal Bays or their tributaries. Development is restricted within the critical area and severely restricted in the “buffer area” defined as being within 100 feet of the shoreline.

A full list of the report’s recommendations can be found in the report’s Executive Summary:

Variance Criteria

  • The General Assembly, the Commission, and local jurisdictions should consider revising the variance process to focus on recognizing, minimizing, and mitigating impacts.
  • The General Assembly should clarify the unwarranted hardship standard.
  • The General Assembly should strengthen the self-created hardship factor.
  • The General Assembly should adopt a requirement that a variance represents the minimum necessary to afford relief from the Critical Area Program’s development restrictions.

Critical Area Commission

  • Local jurisdictions should defer to the Commission when it opposes a variance.
  • The Commission should promulgate regulations for lot coverage variances.
  • The Commission should promulgate regulations that prohibit pools in the critical area buffer.

Existing Requirements

  • Variance decisions should include a substantive analysis of each variance factor in the state and local critical area program.
  • Local jurisdictions should submit a copy of all variance decisions to the Commission.

Transparency, Accountability, and Reporting

  • The Critical Area Program would benefit from increased transparency
  • The Critical Area Program would benefit from increased accountability and reporting, including uniform recordkeeping of inspection and enforcement information.
  • The Commission should prepare annual reports on the implementation and enforcement of the Critical Area Program.
  • Local jurisdictions should document circumstances in which potential applicants decide not to apply for a variance upon consultation with county staff.

Enforcement

  • Local jurisdictions should be more proactive in enforcing their critical area programs, and ensure that penalties are substantial enough to deter critical area violations.

Education

  • Education courses for local planning commissions and Boards of Appeals should cover case law and legislative history of the Critical Area Program, in addition to the currently required subjects.
  • The Commission and local jurisdictions should better educate property owners about the Critical Area Program and its role in protecting the Chesapeake and Atlantic Coastal Bays.

The Critical Area law and the CAC underwent a major statutory revision in 2008 (HB 1253) that considered and rejected giving the CAC binding authority over local variance decisions. Instead, the CAC is notified of each variance application, can offer its recommendation, and has the authority to intervene as a party if it wishes to challenge a particular variance decision.

A Bay Journal article (2016-12-18) provides further reactions to the report and some of the issues raised in the 2008 legislation:

[The Environmental Law Clinic’s] 136-page look at the Critical Area law, county by county, shows overwhelming approval of variances and scant oversight from the state, as well as a lack of record-keeping to keep track of cases. They looked at data from 2012 to 2014. In six counties with extensive Bay waterfront that were scrutinized, the law clinic team found variance requests granted from 89 to 100 percent of the time. …

Under the O’Malley administration, the Maryland General Assembly passed legislation intended to strengthen enforcement of the law. Among the provisions: contractors working in the Critical Area needed a Home Improvement License, and there were stricter penalties for violators. It also tightened requirements to give counties less discretion over approving development in the Critical Area.

The Maryland Association of Counties supported the 2008 law. One provision of the original bill that was dropped to gain counties’ support would have given the state Critical Area Commission the final authority on variance decisions.

“MACo does not believe the CAC should be able to override local decisions carte blanche,” Leslie Knapp Jr., the association’s legal and policy counsel, said.

At the Bay Journal’s request, Knapp read the 136-page report. He said that the law is not a “one-size-fits-all” approach and that the counties need to have the authority to make their own decisions. Perhaps, though, he said, county planners need better training to “incorporate Critical Area law issues” into those decisions.

Alison Prost, Maryland executive director of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, said in a press release that the group is worried about further erosions to the law’s provisions. The patterns so far, she said, should “worry every Marylander” who believed the law protected the state’s most sensitive shorelines.

“The report clearly shows a lack of accountability and transparency on the part of local governments,” she said. “It also suggests a lack of leadership on behalf of Maryland and the Critical Area Commission, both of which seem lax in overseeing local government actions.”

Useful Links

Report: Maryland’s Critical Area Protection Program: Variances and Enforcement in Selected Jurisdictions from 2012 to 2014

Environmental Law Clinic Website

CAC Webpage

HB 1253 of 2008

Kittleman to Introduce Howard County Rebate Legislation for Septic Pumpouts

Howard County media release  (2016-12-20) reported that Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman plans on introducing county legislation that would provide a $100 rebate to  homeowners who pump out their septic systems. From the media release:

The incentive is another strategy to improve stormwater quality and will provide some relief to taxpayers who pay the County’s stormwater fee.

To qualify for the credit under the County’s new Septic Savers program, homeowners would be required to submit an invoice showing the completed work and use a hauler that maintains a current septic scavenger permit. Residents would be able to apply for the incentive every three to five years as pumping is needed.

“Performing regular maintenance on septic systems is vital to the environment,” said Kittleman. “Giving residents an incentive to get the work done is not only a win for them, but also furthers our mission to be good stewards of our County.”

The Maryland Department of the Environment (MDE) recognizes septic tank pumping as an alternative approach to meeting the state’s mandate to treat 20 percent of its impervious surfaces by 2019. The County’s Office of Community Sustainability has determined septic tank pumping is a cost-effective approach to meeting that mandate.

Kittleman said if all septic users in the County took part in the Septic Savers program, the County could obtain about 570 acres of impervious treatment credit, or about 30 percent of its 2019 permit treatment goal.

The $100 credit represents about 40 percent of the average cost to pump a septic system in Howard County. A maximum of 1,000 homeowners may participate in the program during the first year.

In addition to the credit, the Septic Savers program will offer educational programs through a partnership with the University of Maryland’s Septic Clinic Program. The Howard County Health Department will either provide homeowners with a FAQ sheet of septic regulations or will have a staff person attend septic clinics.

Anne Arundel County Council Debates Controversial Rural Conservation Legislation

Anne Arundel County Council members on Monday voted down a change to the Rural Conservation Act that would have incorporated the Mayo peninsula into the bill’s proposed conservation area.

Mayo residents have been some of the most vocal in protesting Bill 82-16, which draws a line around portions of the county designated for conservation. This “rural conservation line” would mostly trace state-mandated growth tier boundaries, which indicate areas targeted for development and others intended to remain rural.

From The Capital Gazette,

Under the measure, land within a designated “rural conservation area” would still be eligible for low-density development allowed under the current zoning code. But changing a zoning designation to allow higher density or a more intense use — a practice called “upzoning” — would become more difficult.

Most of the conserved area would be located in the county’s rural south. Mayo peninsula residents worry the measure would push more development into the non-conserved areas, including their community.

County Executive Steve Schuh, who considers the rural conservation bill a legislative priority, has said the measure is not intended to threaten other areas. He said he intends to put forward additional legislation in coming months to address other development concerns, beginning with a bill reforming cluster development introduced at Monday’s meeting.

Two dozen people testified on the proposal and many more showed up to watch the council’s last meeting of the year. A majority of the speakers, mostly Mayo residents, were against the bill’s passage.

In response to some of those concerns, Councilman Jerry Walker, R-Crofton, proposed an amendment that would have included the Mayo peninsula in the conservation area. Walker, who represents the peninsula as well as south county, said he still wouldn’t be able to support the rural conservation line even if the amendment passed.

“This does create a situation where there are winners and losers, and in this case tonight the Mayo peninsula is mobilized and they are mobilized because they feel particularly picked on,” Walker said. “I’m doing this on behalf of my constituents because they are fearful of what’s to come.”

Councilmen voted down the change in a 4-3 vote.

Councilman Chris Trumbauer, D-Annapolis, said he feared removing the peninsula would start a “Frankenstein’s monster” process of chipping away at the bill’s protected area. He floated the idea of creating a special zoning overlay protecting the peninsula, instead.

“If we pass an amendment like this, it kind of blows the whole bill up, for better or for worse,” Trumbauer said. “Regardless of what happens to this legislation, whether it lives or dies or transforms into something completely different, I would very much like to see something that addresses concerns about the Mayo peninsula and other peninsulas, because I think that they are very real.”

Council members also voted to remove a part of Woodwardville, in Odenton, from the zone, as well as any conserved areas in District 5, which includes Severna Park and Millersville. Councilman Michael Peroutka, a Millersville Republican who represents District 5, asked for the area to be cut.

“It’s my belief that the drawing of a line is inherently a thing that’s going to decrease economic freedom and vitality on both sides,” he said.

The council also voted to add Patapsco Valley State Park, in north county, into the conservation area.

In other action, the council:

•Voted to amend Bill 87-16, which would allow so-called “nuisance” businesses to be forced by the county to close for up to a year. Under the changes, businesses would need 10 proven arrests for nuisance issues to trigger a hearing (instead of the bill’s original requirement of two police reports) and would be entitled to a Board of Appeals hearing within eight business days of a ruling to close.

•Unanimously voted to extend Laureen Toney’s service as acting controller until April 2017. Toney replaced former Controller Julie Mussog, who left to head the Anne Arundel Economic Development Corp.

•Amended Bill 86-16, which addresses county pension plan rules, to ensure that proposed changes to the plan selection process would not impact any current employees.

•Voted to hold Bill 73-16, which requires more public notice during comprehensive zoning for changes that are proposed outside of the county planning and zoning office’s application process.

Read the full article for more information.