Solar development divides farmers, Ellicott City development halt draws strong support

Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball (center) said an independent analysis of the county's largest tax increment financing deal is essential to move forward.
Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball (center) said an independent analysis of the county's largest tax increment financing deal is essential to move forward. (Fatimah Waseem)

Two proposals to dramatically alter development patterns in Howard County drew mixed testimony at a County Council hearing Monday night.

Hundreds of acres of Howard County farmland protected from development at taxpayer expense could become fertile ground for commercial solar development. The measure, proposed by Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball, pitted farmer against farmer at the hearing.


The bill would allow landowners who sold their development rights to the county by entering their land into preservation to allow commercial solar facilities between 10 to 75 acres.

Some farm groups like the Howard County Farm Bureau support the move, which they said provides a steady income stream for struggling farmers while encouraging clean renewable energy.


"Like the weather we've had last summer, you never know if you're going to drive or drown," said Howie Feaga, president of the Howard County Farm Bureau.

Passed down through generations since 1934, the farm has been protected under the county's farmland preservation program since 1989. But its owners, part of the aging ranks of farmers in the county and throughout the state, wonder how long it will last.

But opponents said the move threatens farmland and undermines the intention of the county's agricultural land preservation program, which aims to preserve the county's best remaining farmland and generally prohibits large-scale non-agricultural development.

Ted Mariani, president of the Concerned Citizens of Western Howard County, said the bill is a clear "violation of trust" between the county and taxpayers who entered land into a preservation program that prohibits industrial and commercial use.

"If this goes through, this might be the biggest bait and switch in the county," said Dan O'Leary, president of the Greater Highland Crossroads Association.

The bill's opponents stressed they were not against renewable energy — only on land intended for preservation.

"We do not need to sacrifice our farmlands in order to support clean energy," said Susan Garber on behalf of the Howard County Citizens Association.

Supporters said the move is unlikely to lead to widespread proliferation of solar development.

George Brown, owner of Nixon's Farm in West Friendship, the first farm in the county to generate solar electricity sold to an electric company, said the approval was "arduous."

Farms must be within a mile of a BGE substation and it can cost $1 million per mile to connect lines to substations, Brown said.

Farmland is not permanently transformed into solar development, Brown said; "The land is still the land."

To date, the county has received few applications for commercial solar development.

The county's hearing examiner denied a proposal to build a commercial solar facility on 37 acres near Old Frederick Road late last year.


About 290 parcels of land of at least 10 acres would be eligible for the program.

The county's planning board, an advisory group, and the county's Department of Planning and Zoning recommended the proposal.

Natalie Ziegler, an Ellicott City resident and a farm manager, said solar development is compatible with farming, which she said is, at its heart, a "commercial and industrial activity."

Harvesting the sun is a "very tidy" project compared to other projects like residential development and hog operations, Ziegler said.

"I don't know when those became a bad thing … suck it up or quit heating up your McMansions," Ziegler said.

Development halt

Councilman Jon Weinstein's bill to temporarily halt development in the Ellicott City area drew strong support from residents and community groups who pleaded with the county to develop a more comprehensive county-wide stormwater management plan that includes regulations for old developments.

Residents like Woodstock resident Lorli Lilly called the move, which Weinstein hopes will encourage the county to critically examine the effect of development on the area's waterways following the July 30 flood, a "no brainer."

The move halts new commercial and residential development for nine months in the Tiber-Hudson watershed amid concerns about the impact of development on the area's waterways after July's deadly flash flood in historic Ellicott City. The Tiber and Hudson streams feed into the Patapsco River.

Some citizen groups like the Howard County Citizens Association called on the council to expand the halt to the Patapsco watershed.

"To look at the Tiber-Hudson watershed alone is short-sighted, said J.D. Smith.

Others worried if the county's post-disaster studies, which will determine factors that contributed to the flood, will gather dust.

"We have enough studies … to move on any number of projects right now," Lilly said. "What can we do about that right now, not nine months from now?"

A zoning change before the Council would allow farmers to use their most valuable natural commodity, the sun, to continue the farming tradition in a changing industry where the traditional farm model is changing throughout the country.

Weinstein said there is an "appropriate amount of skepticism" warranted because the county has done many studies and "not execut[ed] on some of those plans."

The proposed moratorium would halt approval of building and grading permits but exempt permits for reconstruction needed after a natural disaster, such as flooding.

"If you can't afford to do it right, how can you afford to do it over? We're doing that right now in Ellicott City," said Ellicott City resident Angie Boyter.

The development halt drew strong opposition from Josh Greenfeld, the Maryland Building Industry Association's vice president of government affairs.

Greenfeld called the moratorium "short-sighted" and "misguided."

"You can't change the rules in the middle of the game and expect business to go on," Greenfeld said, adding "new development did not cause the flooding."

Others like engineer David Woessner pointed to what he said was a larger problem: older developments were built when little-to-no stormwater management was required.

School oversight

Ball said the school system and the school board provided "a significant amount of documents" following his threat of legal action against the school system last month.

The documents are necessary for the council's auditor to complete a financial audit of the school system at the request of the council following a contentious budget session earlier this year.

Despite the school system's cooperation, Christina Delmont-Small, a candidate running for the school board, said the move, like an insurance policy, was necessary should the council have limited access to information in the future.

"I am sad that we have to keep coming here and testifying for more oversight of our school system," said Woodbine resident and school board candidate Vicky Cutroneo.

The council will vote on the above measures on Oct. 5 at 7 p.m. in the George Howard building in Ellicott City.

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