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Maryland’s highest court rules state can trump counties in deciding where solar, wind projects can go

Maryland’s highest court rules state can trump counties in deciding where solar, wind projects can go
The Maryland Court of Appeals determined that the state, not local governments, has final say on solar projects like this one in Howard County's West Friendship. (HANDOUT)

Maryland’s highest court has affirmed that state utility regulators have the power to trump the objections of county governments to solar and wind energy projects, appearing to settle an issue that has stalled renewable energy development in rural parts of the state.

The Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that under state law, the Public Service Commission is “the ultimate decision-maker” in approving power plant projects.

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“Under the plain language of the statute, local government is a significant participant in the process, and local planning and zoning concerns are important in the PSC approval process,” Judge Brynja M. Booth wrote in an opinion handed down this week. “However, the ultimate decision-maker is the PSC, not the local government or local zoning board.”

County governments have raised concern in recent years when the PSC has approved renewable energy projects that residents fear would be an eyesore or disrupt agricultural economies in rural areas. Some, including Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, have imposed short-term moratoriums on such development in recent years.

Renewable energy advocates have said the local conflicts have slowed development of solar and wind power across the state. A Maryland law passed this year and enacted without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature requires the state to get half its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

The ruling cited state law setting a broad mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as failed proposals in the General Assembly that would have transferred more authority over energy projects to local governments.

PSC officials were “pleased” with the ruling, spokeswoman Tori Leonard said, saying it both affirmed the commission’s authority in site decisions while recognizing the consideration it gives to local zoning ordinances.

Solar farm proposals have raised concern in northern Baltimore County, among other areas of the state. County Councilman Wade Kach, who represents that area, pushed in 2016 for a four-month moratorium on solar development in the county. He said he worries the court ruling will pave the way for the expansion of solar farms on valuable farmland, instead of rooftops, parking lots or brownfield sites.

“It just seems like in my district these solar facilities are being proposed mostly on prime and productive [farm] land,” the Cockeysville Republican said. “It doesn’t make much sense when there’s other locations which are not as sensitive where they can be located.”

Baltimore County officials are reviewing the ruling, said T.J. Smith, a spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr. Smith said the county “will work within the confines of the ruling as we move forward with plans.”'

Leslie Knapp, legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties, called the decision disappointing. The group representing local governments across the state supported legislation the General Assembly approved in 2017 requiring the state to take local comprehensive plans and zoning regulations into account when reviewing large solar and wind projects.

But the state’s authority over power projects “creates a great deal of uncertainty” for local governments, Knapp said.

The case under review concerned a solar project for which a developer sought a special zoning exemption in Washington County in 2015. Neighbors took the matter to Washington County Circuit Court, and the developer argued the PSC authority’s should supersede that of local zoning officials.

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