Proposed solar energy developments in Baltimore County draw opposition over loss of farmland, rural beauty

Gary Atkinson sees new potential for the fields that have long yielded corn and soybeans on his northern Baltimore County farm.

A Seattle-based energy company, OneEnergy Renewables, plans to lease a portion of the scenic property in Freeland for an installation of solar panels that could power hundreds of homes — a deal Atkinson says will keep the farm profitable for years to come.

The Baltimore County Council passed rules in 2017 to govern commercial solar projects, and since then developers have proposed about 20. But now community groups are challenging many of them, saying farmland isn’t the right place for commercial solar development. And a councilman wants to put the brakes on projects like the one in Freeland.

Councilman Wade Kach’s bill would impose a nine-month moratorium on rural solar projects while the county reconsiders whether to allow them on farmland. The bill would halt requests to put solar developments on rural land and also apply retroactively to projects that have already received administrative approvals from the county.

“The public is not happy with the bill that passed [in 2017] and what is happening,” said Kach, a Republican whose district stretches from the Beltway near Towson to the Pennsylvania line. A dozen projects are proposed for his district, more than any other in the county.

His measure targets so-called “community solar” developments on rural land zoned for conservation. Community solar projects let people who can’t put panels on their roofs help pay for solar developments by signing up as “subscribers.” In return, they can lower their electric bills by as much as 10 percent. The goal is to make solar energy available to more consumers and help the environment by reducing the use of fossil fuels.

Some of the developments, such as the one planned for Atkinson’s farm, are required to include low- and moderate-income customers. Some 55 community solar projects are planned throughout Maryland as part of a pilot program authorized by the General Assembly in 2015.

Kach and those supporting his proposed moratorium say commercial solar development will take productive farmland out of use, mar rural beauty and diminish home property values. They want the county to instead steer solar development toward places like parking lots, rooftops and abandoned industrial areas.

“The bottom line is, solar is wanted, needed,” said Teresa Moore, executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a land preservation group. But “is it necessary to sacrifice our best farmland?”

Kach noted that after the 2017 law passed, the county planning board recommended that solar facilities be directed toward business and manufacturing areas — and should not be placed on “prime and productive soils” or detract from scenic routes.

Advocates for solar development say a moratorium is at odds with larger goals to fight climate change and transition to clean energy. Maryland law calls for the state to get 25 percent of its electricity from renewable sources such as wind and solar by next year, up from about 20 percent currently.

“You can’t be for solar power everywhere else but your neighborhood,” said Gary Skulnik, a solar entrepreneur and CEO of Neighborhood Sun, which recruits customers for solar projects. “People time and time again say they want more solar in the state. Local politicians trying to keep solar out of their districts really flies in the face of what most Marylanders want.”

The seven-member County Council is set to vote on Kach’s proposal Tuesday. A crowd packed into a recent council meeting to discuss the bill, with more than 50 people signing up to testify.

Prospects for Kach’s proposal are uncertain. Council Chairman Tom Quirk said Kach didn’t consult with colleagues before introducing the bill, and several council members have expressed concern about suspending projects that already received county approvals.

“It’s penalizing people that abided by the law, the rules,” said Quirk, an Oella Democrat.

Similar debates have played out elsewhere in Maryland. In 2017, Anne Arundel County imposed an eight-month ban on solar projects, then established new zoning rules limiting where they can be built.

Talbot County on the Eastern Shore and Frederick County are among the places that have temporarily halted solar projects amid debate.

Howard County, meanwhile, passed a measure to specifically allow solar projects on agricultural land. County Executive Calvin Ball sponsored the bill when he was a councilman in 2016. A large solar facility was completed last year at Nixon’s Farm in West Friendship. Four other solar projects proposed for agricultural land are in various stages of the development process, officials said.

Maryland’s first community solar project opened last year on the rooftop of a rental property in Baltimore’s Fells Point neighborhood.

But farmland is particularly desirable for solar developers. They pay less for it than for property in urban areas and can build more easily upon the open land.

Kach says rules in neighboring Carroll and Harford counties, which restrict solar development on agricultural land, have pushed developers to set their sights on Baltimore County.

If county farmland became off-limits, it would be much harder for developers to build projects on the scale needed to make community solar work, said Lauren Barchi, Maryland program director with the nonprofit Solar United Neighbors.

“The whole idea of community solar is to make solar cheaper,” she said.

Atkinson, a retired attorney who leases much of his land to a farmer, said solar developers began approaching him a few years ago about leasing a portion of his property near Oakland Road.

He now has a deal with OneEnergy Renewables, which wants to install 12 to 14 acres of solar panels, along with security fencing and landscaping. The project is billed as “pollinator-friendly,” featuring plants such as black-eyed Susans and bee balm. Atkinson says he likes that solar panels are not permanent, unlike other development.

The 74-year-old said his 100-acre property has been in the family since the early 1800s. Income from the solar lease, he says, will give his four children incentive to keep the farm.

“I am a person who believes very much in the environment,” he said. “I want to see it protected, and I believe this can do it.”

OneEnergy Renewables project manager Kate Larkin and other industry representatives say they face deadlines imposed by the state’s community-solar pilot program and have already invested significant time and money in their projects.

“I would be very hesitant to work in Baltimore County again” if a moratorium passes, Larkin said.

In 2017, Kach was the only council member to vote against the solar legislation, which was sponsored by then-Councilwoman Vicki Almond, a Democrat from Reisterstown.

That bill was meant to be a compromise, said Kevin Kriescher of the Greater Baltimore Sierra Club, a group that opposes Kach’s proposed moratorium. The legislation allowed 10 projects for each of the council’s seven districts, though more were allowed in Kach’s district because some were already pending when the law passed.

Kriescher says the projects allowed under the county law are relatively small — up to 2 megawatts. He believes the county must move forward with alternative energy, and thinks the public will become more receptive to solar facilities as they become more common.

“On the whole, we all will have a better world if we have more solar than coal plants,” Kriescher said.

Santo Mirabile, president of the Hanover Road Association in northern Baltimore County, said the 2017 legislation didn’t take into account many of the concerns of rural communities.

“With proper guidance, the government can guide these developers toward installations on brownfields, on top of commercial buildings” and other places that wouldn’t detract from the north county’s rural nature, Mirabile said.

County Executive Johnny Olszewski Jr., a Democrat, has said county government should work toward getting all of its energy from renewable sources.

“We believe we can reach that goal while preserving prime and productive farmland,” spokesman T.J. Smith said in a statement to The Baltimore Sun.

“We do believe the bill moves in that direction,” Smith said, but added the administration doesn’t support making a moratorium retroactive. “The people who proceeded properly shouldn’t be adversely affected as this bill comes to fruition,” he said.

Kach predicts the developments will remain tied up even if the county doesn’t impose a moratorium. Community groups in his district are challenging all the projects there through the county’s appeals process.

The Sparks-Glencoe Community Planning Council is among those groups.

“We support solar. Many of our members have solar on their own roofs,” said Lynne Jones, its president. But commercial projects, she said, should be “placed in the proper areas.”

alisonk@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

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