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Bills would allow wind, solar projects on preserved farmland

ConservationLaws and LegislationAgricultureRenewable EnergyAlternative Energy

Hundreds of acres of Maryland farmland that are protected from development at taxpayer expense could be turned into commercial wind or solar energy farms under legislation before the General Assembly.

Farm groups and the O'Malley administration support the move, which they say could help struggling farmers stay viable while boosting prospects for "clean" renewable energy. Bills pending in House and Senate committees would let landowners who have sold their development rights to the state use up to 5 acres each for generating electricity from wind, sunshine or even decomposing animal and crop waste.

"This bill is critical if we want to have wind power in Maryland," Jonas Jacobson, lobbyist for a Virginia-based renewable energy company, told lawmakers recently.

Sen. Thomas M. Middleton, a Charles County Democrat and farmer, says both farmers and the state would benefit.

"It's a priority for the state to move toward more renewable energy," he said. And for farmers, he added, it's an opportunity to diversify, providing a hedge against bad weather and unpredictable crop prices.

But most conservationists oppose the change. They warn that allowing any non-agricultural activity on land set aside for farming could undermine long-running efforts to preserve Maryland's best remaining farmland. Though the state has one of the most successful preservation programs in the country, only a fourth of all farmland is shielded from development pressures, they say.

"We simply can't afford, in this day and age, to lose a single acre of farmland," said Dru Schmidt-Perkins, executive director of the environmental group 1000 Friends of Maryland. "Yes, we need wind power and other things. But we have the whole [rest of the] state to do that."

At issue are properties such as Angelica Nurseries in Kennedyville, where three generations of the Kohl family have raised trees, shrubs and ornamental plants in the rich, loamy soil of the upper Eastern Shore.

Raising trees isn't the growth industry it used to be, said Bernard E. Kohl Jr., whose grandfather launched the nursery business in Pennsylvania in the 1950s before it moved to Kent County. Sales — and employment — have yet to recover to pre-recession levels.

Apex Clean Energy, based in Charlottesville, Va., wants to lease land from the Kohls and their neighbors to develop a 100-megawatt wind energy project. Kohl said the developer has told him that hosting several wind turbines on nursery land could yield a six-figure annual income.

"It would greatly stabilize our business," Kohl said.

But the Kohls and their neighbors have put much of their land in preservation, which forbids any non-agricultural activity, and are considering preserving more.

Since 1980, Maryland taxpayers have paid the Kohls and other farmers close to $700 million to preserve more than 295,000 acres on more than 2,100 farms. In return, the landowners give up any rights to use the land for anything except farming.

The state paid Angelica Nurseries $670,000 for an easement on 229 acres, according to state records. Kohl said the family is applying to sell development rights on three other parcels in its 1,600-acre tract.

The state preservation money is "a huge deal," Kohl said, and helps keep a lot of farms going.

But the wind project also is "a great opportunity for these farmers," said Tyson Utt, Mid-Atlantic development director for Apex. The turbines are spread out and each takes up about a half-acre of land. Farmers can plant or graze livestock around them, he said.

Apex has leased about a third of the land it needs from Kohl and his neighbors to build 35 to 45 large turbines, Utt said. But the rest of the land is in preservation or could be soon.

"Farms are struggling right now," Kohl said. With the income from a half acre of land, he said, "a farm can continue farming through these tough times."

The situation on the Eastern Shore is typical, wind energy developers say. Maryland has two commercial wind projects on a mountain in Garrett County, and other ridgetop projects and a massive offshore wind project are planned. But so much farmland has been preserved across the state that it's difficult to find enough open space for a sprawling array of large turbines.

That could handicap Maryland reaching its goal of producing 20 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2022. For that reason, the Maryland Energy Administration favors using preserved farmland under certain conditions for renewable energy projects.

The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, which manages the state's effort to save farmland, has sparred over the years with farmers over their efforts to supplement crop and livestock income with other commercial endeavors. But the foundation supports letting them lease out a limited amount of land for these projects.

"We are taking away from landowners their right to develop land commercially, residentially and industrially," said Carol West, the foundation's executive director. "But we understand our landowners are having a hard time making farming work for them. We have asked for leeway to loosen that rein."

Farmland preservation programs in Pennsylvania and New York allow farmers to lease land for electricity generation, according to Apex's Utt.

Lawmakers say they're drawn to help farmers and hope to avoid potential pitfalls in the change. One challenge that threatens to limit or even kill the legislation is opposition from the Defense Department and its supporters in the General Assembly to anything that would allow wind energy projects within 46 miles of Naval Air Station Patuxent River in St. Mary's County. The towering blades could interfere with aviation radar and drive away a major economic engine, they say.

"Farmers have got to be profitable, just like any other businessman or -woman in the state," said Del. Maggie McIntosh during a recent hearing on the legislation. The Baltimore Democrat is chairwoman of the House Environmental Matters Committee. "You just can't continue to stay on land that's driving you further in debt. We do need to have positive solutions," she said.

Lawmakers have proposed several amendments to address the concerns of conservationists, including limiting the type of projects allowed and requiring farmers to pay the state 10 percent of whatever they earn from renewable energy. Those funds would be plowed back into farmland preservation, which, like many conservation programs, has suffered funding shortages in recent years.

With those changes, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation would withdraw its opposition, said Elaine Lutz, a lawyer with the Annapolis-based environmental group. But it still would not support the legislation.

"We're worried it's a slippery slope," Lutz said, creating more pressure to allow other commercial activities on preserved farmlands.

"We want to see clean energy created, and we want to see incentives" for farmers to stay on their land, she told lawmakers. "However, these easements have already been bought by the taxpayer. … If we start chipping away at that, it hurts the little that's left in the public's trust of doing with the money what we say we're going to do."

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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