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Letting the sun shine

Catonsville resident Dave Sinclair talks about the solar power system he has at his home.

As much as solar power has invaded suburban neighborhoods rooftop by rooftop in recent years, the real growth in solar worldwide has been in larger "farms" where electricity is generated and sold to local utilities or perhaps to one or two large companies. Increasingly, builders are buying or leasing cheap rural land and then installing permanent solar panels. It's a formula that may help promote renewable energy, but it's not the best use of land in all cases.

That's why Baltimore County Councilman Wade Kach's recently-introduced plan to regulate rural solar farms is a timely effort. That's not to suggest that solar power is to be discouraged. Quite the contrary. But a balance should be struck in promoting renewable energy while also preserving rural areas.

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Take one of the central issues — the preservation of farmland. Howard County allows solar farms to be built on land already set aside for agricultural use through conservation easements. Mr. Kach disagrees with that approach, and we are inclined to agree with him. If taxpayers have paid a farmer to grow crops on his property (and there's a real benefit for taxpayers in such an approach, given how it discourages the common alternative — farmers selling land for destructive "sprawl" development), building a solar farm doesn't really achieve that purpose.

The counter argument is that solar farms have their own environmental benefits with exceptional importance, and that's absolutely true. But the difference is that solar panels don't have to cover fertile land; they could just as easily be added to existing buildings or other man-made structures or on land that has less value either to grow crops or support wildlife. Any jurisdiction that allows solar farms on protected farmland isn't getting the full benefits of a conservation easement.

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We are less sympathetic with concerns about aesthetics. Solar panels do not necessarily represent an "industrial" use as some claim, and photovoltaic cells are no more unattractive than a lot of buildings already permitted on rural lands. So if Baltimore County is going to monkey around with landscaping requirements, height limits or set-back rules, they should be no more onerous than anything else property owners might face in building on their land — whether to add a home or a non-residential outbuilding.

Scale is another matter. The larger the solar farm, the greater the need for zoning oversight. That includes making sure solar farms aren't adding too much impervious surface, replacing forest or natural habitat or causing stormwater runoff issues. It would be ironic, indeed, if a major installation of solar panels was found to be hurting the water supply by increasing soil erosion that pollutes local streams which pour into rivers and then the Chesapeake Bay.

Clearly, regulating solar farms won't be easy. Baltimore County must be cautious not to create roadblocks that might discourage investment in renewable energy technology that has enormous public benefit. That isn't just because of climate change and the various greenhouse gases pumped out by coal-fired power plants, it's also about keeping Maryland's air breathable and promoting energy independence in a truly sustainable way.

The Baltimore-Washington area is ranked as the 22nd worst among U.S. cities for ground-level ozone or smog. While some progress has been made on that front, the state still sometimes experiences "Code Red" days when the air is regarded as unhealthy and not just for sensitive groups such as those who work outdoors or have asthma.

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That this is the second bill Mr. Kach has introduced on the subject already demonstrates how tricky these issues can be. As did Kevin Kamenetz's veto of a temporary solar farm moratorium earlier this year. The county executive was opposed to how the vetoed bill would have forced the county to add landscaping to solar installations on its own property. Mr. Kach says that he regards the legislation as a work in progress and remains open to fine tuning.

Like most important decisions in the planning and zoning arena, this is a balancing act that must respect the important goal of promoting solar energy while also protecting communities, preserving farm land and sparing historic districts from losing their integrity. We don't know that the legislation as it's currently written accomplishes the task satisfactorily, but it is certainly worthy of serious consideration and debate.

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