Wind turbine

A worker stands atop a wind turbine along Backbone Mountain. (Barbara Haddock Taylor, Baltimore Sun / July 19, 2011)

A bill that could allow hundreds of acres of preserved farmland to be converted to wind farms or other renewable energy projects was approved Monday by the House of Delegates, 97 to 33.

Supporters say farmers need the ability to diversify their income to stay viable. Some conservationists, though, worry that the measure would open the door to other commercial activities, ultimately undermining the viability of farmland preserved at taxpayer expense.

The bill was amended to sunset after five years and to limit the types of permitted energy projects to wind or solar farms or anaerobic digestion of poultry manure. The energy facility's owner would have to pay the state 5 percent of whatever the landowner received for leasing up to five acres for the project, with the funds to be earmarked for preserving more farmland.

At the insistence of Southern Maryland lawmakers, the measure also would restrict the height of wind turbines that could be erected on preserved farmland up to 56 miles from Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary's County. That restricted area stretches northward to Annapolis and eastward across the Chesapeake Bay to cover much of the lower Eastern Shore. The Navy has expressed concern that tall turbines' rotating blades in that zone could interfere with Patuxent's radar.

The bill now goes to the Senate.

twheeler@baltsun.com