Nixon's Farm in West Friendship will become the county's first farm to generate solar electricity sold directly to an electric company, but the project could grow even larger if the Howard County Council approves an amended zoning regulation.
Bith Energy, a Baltimore-based energy engineering and technical services consulting firm, has proposed building a 50- to 60-acre solar farm on Nixon's Farm capable of producing 10 megawatts of energy, or enough to power about 5,000 homes, according to Warren Woo, a Bith senior project manager.
But in order for Bith to move forward, the County Council will first have to approve an amended zoning regulation that allows a commercial solar facility on properties zoned rural conservation or rural residential.
Bith has been approved for a 9.5-acre facility on Nixon's Farm, but is seeking a new conditional use in the zoning regulation to expand its facility.
Nixon's Farm, zoned rural conservation, hosts weddings, retreats, luncheons and parties.
Residents who testified against the proposal at last week's marathon County Council public hearing expressed concerns with the size of the project, its proximity to other properties, potential issues with glare and noise, and the overall image of a large solar farm in western Howard County.
But the Nixon Farm has other county farmers on its side.
The Howard County Farm Bureau has voted to support the project, according to President Howie Feaga.
Feaga said solar power represents another way for farmers to make a profit through their property.
"Yes, it's a commercial thing, but it's one of the most green things you can put out there," he said.
The council also addressed some residents' concerns during its monthly work session Monday, Nov. 26.
Director of Planning and Zoning Marsha McLaughlin said that while the setback in the county regulation will be 50 feet, the panels are significantly further back from fencing that marks the 50-feet limit.
McLaughlin's department is recommending approval of this addition to the conditional use categories because "it is in harmony with the overall intentions" behind PlanHoward2030. The county general plan calls for development an energy plan that prepares for different future energy scenarios, examines options for various kinds of future energy sustainability, promotes conservation and renewable resources and sets targets to reduce greenhouse gases.
Ted Mariani, president of Concerned Citizens of Western Howard County, said he is not opposed to the project, but opposed to the regulation itself, which he calls "open-ended."
Mariani claims there are not enough specifics in the regulation. For example, it has no size maximums or stipulation on the types of solar energy to be housed on farm properties.
"It's basically an open-ended ticket," he said.
Woo said this would be one of Bith's larger projects to date, after similar projects in Somerset County and Baltimore City, as well as in Massachusetts.
While Bith has not conducted a study on how many sites in Howard County could become available for similar projects with this amended regulation, he estimated it could be 10 to 15 sites, based on topography and substation locations.
The council is expected to vote on the amended regulation Monday, Dec. 3.