The Harford County Council passed amendments to solar power legislation this week that would make plans for community solar installations go through a more public process for approval.
The full legislation, which would allow community solar systems to be built on certain types of property in Harford, could come before the council for a vote at its next meeting on Tuesday.
A work group will also be convened later this spring to consider allowing the solar power facilities on land zoned for agricultural uses.
The amendments make approval of community solar projects — facilities that do not exceed 2 megawatts of power production — more public than originally written in the bill. As the legislation was, solar projects would have been classified as special developments, Councilman Robert Wagner said at Tuesday’s meeting.
Council President Patrick Vincenti said the change from special development to special exception ensures the process is done publicly.
Special developments are usually approved in-house by the county government, applying zoning regulations to a development seeking approval, county spokesperson Cindy Mumby said. A special exception, though, makes it a more public process that can make its way to the county council, sitting as the Board of Appeals, for a vote if a case is appealed.
Wagner and others initially had concerns that solar power systems could not be placed on agriculture-zoned land, and he wanted to include agricultural zones in the amendments. However, he was concerned the legislation could have unintended consequences for areas around solar installations, and wanted to ensure any changes would work for a variety of properties, like those that might require easements to connect to the power grid.
County Executive Barry Glassman, Wagner said, told him that a work group would be convened to study ways to make agricultural land eligible for solar installations.
With time of the essence, Wagner said it made more sense to address agricultural zoning at a later date, but he plans to get the work group started sooner than later.
“You try to craft these things so that it works for today, but it also works for future years,” Wagner said.
Agricultural land is an ideal place to put the solar power systems because they can act as temporary preservation easements for farmland — providing steady income to landowners who are debating what to do with their property and helping stave off development pressure, Wagner said.
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Meeting again in-person Tuesday, the council applauded the joint effort by citizens, industry professionals, the county administration and the council members themselves for working together on the amendments. Wagner was singled out for praise by the other councilmen because he spearheaded the amendment effort.
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 would require landscape buffering and fences at least 6 feet high. They must also be made of glare-mitigating material to avoid posing a glare hazard, according to the amendments, which may necessitate a glare hazard study.
The systems also cannot be placed on land conserved through easements and must avoid scenic viewsheds, the amendments state. Up to three of the systems may be built on one parcel or adjoining parcels of land.
At the bill’s public hearing in February, deputy director of planning and zoning David Culver said a single 2-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 how it is situated, the type of system and the energy efficiency of homes the power flows to.
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. Mumby explained that 15% of that has to be solar power.
Mumby said the county administration had no objection to the bill’s amendments.