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Baltimore County puts temporary halt to large solar fields on farms

Baltimore County Council considers rules for solar panel fields on rural farms.

The Baltimore County Council voted unanimously Monday to halt large-scale solar power projects on farmland for four months while the county considers rules for them.

Councilman Wade Kach pushed the measure in response to a growing interest among farmers in leasing their fields to energy companies seeking to install solar panel arrays.

Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, said one property owner in his district already has applied for county approval of a solar field, and others have expressed interest.

Kach, whose district includes the rural northern section of the county, said he's concerned that interest in solar power is outpacing the government's ability to regulate it.

"The county needs to look at this issue," he said.

Solar power companies, lured by a state policy that encourages renewable electricity generation and riding a larger industry boom, are increasingly leasing land from farmers for solar fields. Other Maryland jurisdictions have considered rules, though the state's Public Service Commission, which regulates utilities, has authority to override local regulations in cases involving large-scale power generation projects.

Kach said the solar fields propsed in Baltimore County so far aren't large enough to trigger PSC involvement. He said he's generally not concerned about PSC review.

Kach wants the county to use the moratorium to consider questions such as what zoning designations would be suitable for solar fields, minimum acreage, maximum number of panels, whether they should be allowed in preservation areas, security, fencing, buffers, lighting and landscaping.

He said it's important for the county to establish ground rules.

Kach initially wanted the county's Planning Board to develop solar farm guidelines, but council members altered his bill so that they would do the research themselves. The measure passed 7-0.

The moratorium does not affect homeowners who use solar panels to power their own homes.

It also does not apply to solar projects on government land. Baltimore County Executive Kevin Kamenetz announced earlier this year that he plans to have a company install solar fields on four county properties to provide lower-cost electricity for county operations.

Farmers and solar companies that started the county approval process before Monday's vote would not be subject to the moratorium.

The county currently requires farmers who want to install large fields of solar panels to apply for a special zoning exception to operate a public utility, which requires approval from an administrative judge. At least one farmer in Upperco is already in that process.

pwood@baltsun.com

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