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Community solar energy legislation gets favorable response from Harford residents

Legislation to allow community solar energy systems in Harford County was met with largely favorable views from the public, which weighed in on the bill at a recent meeting of the Harford County Council.

The comments Feb. 2 were mostly positive, but multiple people recommended amending the legislation to allow the systems on residential land, arguing they could relieve development pressure and benefit county residents in a way that does not permanently develop or change the land.

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Introduced at the request of County Executive Barry Glassman, the legislation would allow solar power generating panels to be put on several types of land to provide power to those in the county — as long as the system does not exceed two megawatts, according to the bill.

According to the legislation, the community solar systems would be permitted in most residential and business zoning classifications — with special development conditions — except those designated rural residential and agricultural, among some others They could not be placed on conserved land or preservation easements, and there are minimum required lot sizes for the projects in each zoning classification.

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Deputy director of planning and zoning David Culver said a two-megawatt system covers about eight to 10 acres of land. A system that size could supply power to about 800 homes, he said, depending on siting, the type of system and the energy efficiency of homes the power flows to.

The systems would come with restrictions. No energy-generating structures are permitted closer than 150 feet from a property line or closer than 200 feet from a dwelling, the bill states. Systems’ heights, too, would be regulated to 15 feet, and the systems would require landscape buffering and fences at least 6 feet high. They are also not permitted to pose a glare hazard, according to the legislation.

Decommissioning regulations are also written into the bill to guarantee restoration of the land once a facility has exceeded its useful lifespan. Solar systems generally last for 20 years, Culver said.

In 2019, Maryland’s legislature mandated that 50% of the state’s electricity retail sales come from renewable energy sources by 2030. County spokesperson Cindy Mumby explained that 15% of that has to be solar power.

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Councilman Robert Wagner questioned why the panels would not be allowed on properties zoned for agricultural and rural residential uses, as did Councilman Andre Johnson. Wagner pointed out that the rural residential properties typically have larger lots, while some business and other residential properties are smaller. They raised the issue of agricultural users getting power without needing to have the panels on their properties.

“If it is going to be on the backs of the people that are in or near the development envelope, and then it is going to also benefit the people outside of that area, then I do not know if folks that have it in their backyards within that development envelope are going to necessarily like those particular solar panels,” Johnson said.

Culver told the council that the agriculture and rural residential classifications were excluded from the list of permitted zoning classifications because the county was trying to protect farmland. Besides that, the facilities will not only appear in the development envelope; there are a number of places outside of it that could host community solar systems.

“The [agriculture] district, we were trying to protect the valuable farmland,” Culver said.

Public comments on the legislation were generally positive as people, including several who work in the solar energy business, called in to commend the bill.

Stephanie Flasch, president of Friends of Harford, a group advocating for responsible land use, said the organization approves of the bill with amendments, including allowing those community solar projects on agricultural land. She said that conserved farmland could be excluded and protected in other ways, but solar facilities could make for good, temporary additions to farmland.

“The addition of the agricultural district actually allows a use that does not destroy valuable property with permanent development,” she said.

Flasch also recommended the county change the permitted use from a special development to a special exception, which would allow nearby property owners to give input on any proposed community solar installation close by.

Franny Yuhas, an employee of Turning Point Energy, thanked Glassman and the county council for the legislative attention paid to the bill. She said solar projects benefit county residents in the form of construction jobs and savings on costs of electricity.

Though the legislation was favorable, she said the required 150-foot buffer would be excessive and recommended against establishing minimum lot sizes for the projects. She also said a modest amount of farmland could be used for the projects.

“It is a win-win for everyone,” she said.

Jake Springer, senior policy associate for the solar energy company Nexamp, recommended using some agricultural land for the community system, saying that makes up the majority of the county’s land and area. The addition of community solar systems to farms, he said, could give them a steady source of income, which would allow them to resist pressures to sell their land for development.

“Without its inclusion, I would expect community solar’s development to be very limited in the near-term,” Springer said. “For many landowners, hosting community solar is a revenue stream that allows them to resist more permanent development pressure.”

The community solar legislation was mentioned during a December meeting hosted by the Maryland Public Service Commission on a proposed solar project in the Creswell area off Route 136.

County officials and residents objected to the idea of a larger solar facility in the county, and then-director of Harford County’s department of planning and zoning Brad Killian said the legislation for smaller, community solar projects would be introduced to the council.

The proposed solar project presented at the MPSC meeting would place photovoltaic panels on 140 acres of land at 2000 Calvary Road and generate 30 megawatts of power.

Residents urged the location be reconsidered, and county government said the proposed project ran against its philosophy of land development and could upend decades of precedent in the county. Because Harford County has fewer and broader zoning classifications than comparable jurisdictions, the range of land uses for properties is more flexible. But that is tempered by governmental limiting of growth to specific areas, known as the development envelope.

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