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Carroll County commissioners look to expand community solar options

Carroll County commissioners are exploring expanding zoning code to allow small community solar projects on agricultural land.

The Board of Commissioners on Thursday unanimously voted to send a proposed zoning code amendment to the planning and zoning commission. The amendment, if approved, would permit community solar on land between five and 20 acres on agricultural remainders — the land leftover after residential subdivision lots have been created in an agricultural zone. The amendment would limit each community solar development to a maximum of two megawatts, which is imposed by state law.

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Community solar allows residents or small businesses to subscribe to a solar energy provider within their utility’s territory without having panels on their own property, according to Brenda Dinne, special projects coordinator for Carroll County land and resource management. The intent of the amendment is to increase access to community solar.

The county estimates there are 3,200 acres across 305 parcels within a mile of transmission lines that could possibly be eligible for community solar under this amendment, according to Tom Devilbiss, director of land and resource management. However, not all of this land may meet the proposed criteria, Dinne said in an interview, so the county can’t predict for certain how many properties would host community solar projects.

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The Maryland General Assembly authorized the community solar pilot program in 2015. The idea is to tap into the pool of residential customers who don’t want to get their energy from fossil fuels but currently have no way to switch to a cleaner alternative. Rural land is often the most desirable for solar developers, because it requires the least effort to prepare for an array of panels.

The planning and zoning commission will review the proposed amendment before making a recommendation to the commissioners, Devilbiss said. The commissioners can choose to accept, reject or modify the planning and zoning commission’s recommendation, but first must hold a public hearing before voting to change the zoning code.

In the spring, the commissioners directed county staff to look into expanding community solar and to create a proposal. Currently, solar is permitted in commercial and industrial zones in Carroll County.

Devilbiss presented county staff’s recommendations to the commissioners Aug. 20, then revisited the topic this week to answer lingering questions. At that earlier meeting, he emphasized the amendment is not for large solar projects.

“What we’ve crafted is specifically geared to avoid any large scale solar being developed,” Devilbiss said.

With the proposed amendment comes requirements for site plans, decommissioning plans so land could be used for farming after solar panels are removed, a maximum height of 15 feet for ground-mounted panels and environmentally-conscious landscaping to provide a visual buffer, among other regulations. State law limits location and size of community solar.

County staff also suggested the amendment include requirements to benefit pollinator species like bees. Under the proposed amendment, land with solar panels would need a state pollinator-friendly designation, achieved by planting flowers and other greenery that supports pollinator species. The other option would be to maintain an area under the panels for low crops or grazing. Dinne said the purpose behind this is to maintain an agricultural use and appearance.

Commissioner Richard Weaver, R-District 2, proposed that in exchange for converting agricultural land to solar, that land be permanently entered into the Agricultural Land Preservation Program. Devilbiss said staff could explore preservation options.

Concerned about public perception, the commissioners debated whether to get input from the agricultural community now or later. Stephen Wantz, R-District 1, hesitated to move the proposal to the planning and zoning commission at this stage, but ultimately voted in favor of it.

“I don’t want it to be looked upon as, OK, this is what we’re going to do,” Wantz said. “I don’t want to set the table before we have the plates and the knives and the forks and all that stuff.”

Wantz said he would like to run the proposed amendment by the Environmental Advisory Council and agricultural land preservation officials. Devilbiss assured the commissioners that county staff will get input from interest groups before going to the planning and zoning commission for its recommendation.

“Should anything come back that I feel is either like a deal breaker or something significant, we will be back before you to brief you on it,” Devilbiss said. He acknowledge the proposed amendment can still be modified.

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The date at which the planning and zoning commission will discuss the proposed amendment has not been determined. To watch the entire discussion on solar energy, visit the county government website and click on the Aug. 20, 1 p.m. video and Sept. 3, 9 a.m. video.

Scott Dance contributed to this story.

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