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Proposal to expand solar development on Howard County farmland

Farmland and land in preservation could open up to solar development, change, like these near the River Hill pool in Columbia. if the Council passes a zoning change.
Farmland and land in preservation could open up to solar development, change, like these near the River Hill pool in Columbia. if the Council passes a zoning change. (Barbara Haddock Taylor/Baltimore Sun)

This is part of a series of stories looking at farming in western Howard County.

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

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The change would expand solar farming on land in agricultural preservation, opening up parcels of land for development by solar companies, which typically lease land from farmers to lay out fields for solar panels and other projects.

Part of a growing national trend, solar farming has drawn mixed reviews in nearby jurisdictions like Kent and Anne Arundel counties. Proponents believe solar farms offer farmers a stable, predictable stream of revenue through projects that require little investment and cause minimal impact on the surrounding area.

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"Commercial solar developers in and outside Maryland are pushing to enter the Maryland market and secure land for this," said Dennis Satnick, a solar project developer with RER Energy Group, a regional solar developer. "Preserving agricultural land is totally misguided and hurts the very people it intended to help in some cases. Farm families need financial help. There is no money for them. So here comes solar. It's a much higher-value crop."

Howard County Council Chairman Calvin Ball proposed the change to reduce energy consumption, promote environmental sustainability and support Howard County farmers and land in preservation, making the county "a leader in moving toward alternative energy sources." Lot sizes will range from 10 to 75 acres.

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.

"None of this is permanent. The panels can actually shade crops grown under," Ball said, adding the move empowers farmers and does not prohibit farming in any way.

The county's Agricultural Land Preservation Board will review proposals for commercial solar facilities.

But others argue solar farming projects do not allow the land to revert back to agricultural use once the project is complete, reduces the amount of farmland preserved and detracts from land that could produces locally grown crops.

Walter Carson, of Woodbine, lives near 180 acres that could be a prime location for solar farming. In testimony before the planning board, Carson said the zoning change was the first step in the "inevitable loss of farmland."

"You betray that trust when you quickly decide to permit an action that has the potential to destroy what we've all believed in: the preservation of the rural west," Carson said

The planning board unanimously approved the change in late May, citing that it may be the only way for some farmers to continue farming.

For others like Steve Wilson, who is working with solar developer Distributed Sun to lease 13 acres of family-owned land in Clarksville for a solar project, the new trend is a much better alternative than subdividing the land for residential development.

"The alternative was to divide the property and sell it for housing. Solar is a better alternative for the county and for our family," Wilson said.

The Howard County Farm Bureau, a nonprofit organization that aims to preserve farming, supports the zoning change. The bureau's president, Howie Feaga, said the change will not create a "surge" of solar projects that some fear. Most projects will be small-scale, Feaga said.

In a 4-1 vote on Thursday night, the Planning Board rejected the administration's plan to open up for development 2,181 acres of land set aside for agricultural conservation. Howard County Executive Allan Kittleman seeks to amend the county's current map, which he says strips some farmers of their development rights by robbing them what should be a voluntary choice to enter land into the agriculture preservation program that significantly devalues farmers' land.

"If you're not near a substation, you're not putting in 75 acres [of solar panels] unless you have money to throw around," he said, adding it can cost $1 million per mile to build transmission lines to connect a substation to power facilities.

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Stefano Ratti of Sun East Development said solar projects can coexist with farming and do not significantly disturb the surrounding area.

For Natalie Ziegler, who manages commercial operations at Carroll Mill Farm, the change allows farmers to take advantage of a reliable income stream.

"I know we [farmers] do a lot of whining generally speaking, but we are subject to some amazing ups and downs in life," Ziegler said, adding prices for commodities like corn have fallen drastically in the last three years.

Satnick, who also served on Pennsylvania's agricultural land preservation board, said part of the opposition to solar farming is opposition to change.

"We're in love with pastoral painting of a farm and a little white house and a swing," Satnick said. "When jurisdictions acquire land development and agricultural easements, the farm family does get the initial financial boost. They need solar farming. And that's a choice they get to make."

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