Baltimore County weighs restrictions on rural 'solar farms'

Baltimore County Council weighs restrictions on "solar farms" in rural areas.

Baltimore County officials are weighing how to regulate so-called solar farms in rural areas as farmers increasingly become interested in switching from crops to solar panels.

"I want to get something in place that is reasonable, rational and as good as we can make it," said County Councilman Wade Kach, a Cockeysville Republican, who represents the northern part of the county and is leading the effort.

Kach proposed a measure this month that would limit solar installations in rural areas to no more than 20 acres, or 50 percent of the property — whichever is less. The bill also would regulate how close panels can be to the property line, how tall they could be, and how much landscaping and fencing would be required.

Solar farms would not be allowed on properties that are enrolled in agricultural preservation programs, located in historic districts or that have preservation easements that limit development.

His bill will face a public hearing Jan. 10, and a vote could be held Jan. 17.

Some jurisdictions, including Howard County, have approved measures to allow solar farms on agricultural preservation land. But Kach said he thinks that's not a good idea, because tax dollars have been invested in programs to preserve that land in farming.

"The taxpayers have paid. Their money has been used," Kach said.

Other rural property owners in the county who want to install solar arrays would need to win approval from a county administrative judge. They'd have to show they attempted to locate panels in areas that don't degrade scenic views and don't include "prime and productive agricultural soil."

The bill would not apply to rural residents who install only enough panels to power their own home or farm, or to solar projects on government land.

Kach began working to regulate solar farms after property owners in his district started applying to build them. So far, Baltimore County has treated those applications as requests to build public utilities. None have been approved yet or built, but several are in the review process.

This is Kach's second attempt to create rules for solar farms. He earlier proposed a different bill, then withdrew it. He said more changes still might be needed.

Solar power is attractive to rural property owners, with some solar companies offering $1,000 per acre per year to lease farmland for panel installations.

The County Council previously passed a bill enacting a four-month moratorium on solar fields to give itself time to develop rules. But County Executive Kevin Kamenetz vetoed that measure, saying he disagreed with a clause that would have required extra landscaping on county-owned solar installations.

The council decided not to override the veto and instead moved forward with a formal set of rules.

Officials with the Baltimore County Farm Bureau have expressed reservations about the idea of farmers turning crop fields into solar installations. They've been following Kach's proposals.

"We don't want to limit what an individual can do with their property," said Jo-Ann Chason, president of the Farm Bureau. "That being said, the consensus of the Farm Bureau is that we would prefer not to see productive farm ground taken out of production."

Once fields are covered with solar panels, it would be "nearly impossible" to turn the land back into healthy soil that can grow crops, Chason said.

"The primary purpose of a farm is to feed people, and solar energy doesn't feed anybody," Chason said.

Justin Harrison, the county Farm Bureau's vice president, bristles at the use of the term "solar farm."

"You're not growing anything," he said. "I think they're purposely designed to misrepresent what the thing is. It's a solar power plant. It's an industrial site."

Some northern Baltimore County residents are concerned that large-scale solar installations would diminish the rural vistas that drew them to the area.

"I think it's going to change the aesthetic value," said Santo Mirabile, who owns a 70-acre property in Upperco and serves as president of the Hanover Road Association, which does not support commercial-scale solar projects in rural zones.

Dana Sleeper, executive director of the Maryland, D.C. and Virginia Solar Energy Industries Association, said solar power "has provided great benefits to many in the agricultural community."

She said she's optimistic solar providers, farmers and politicians can reach an agreement on appropriate regulations.

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