Clean Energy or Farmland? Or Both? in Montgomery County: Solar Could Supplant Agricultural Reserve
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Clean Energy or Farmland? Or Both? in Montgomery County: Solar Could Supplant Agricultural Reserve

Council moves forward with zoning amendment to allow solar fields, an industrial use, in the agricultural reserve.

Andrew Friedson was the lone dissenting voice, advocating for the Agricultural Reserve, land preserved 40 years ago by zoning laws to remain farmland forever.

“The Agricultural Reserve was intended to be forever. It was,” said Potomac’s Councilmember.

“Go back to 1980. The prospect of creating transferable development rights was for the purpose of forever. You can’t undo a TDR, that’s a permanent exchange,” said Friedson. “In order to downzone and provide value to the farmers, in order to downzone and preserve that land into perpetuity.”

County Council’s action 40 years ago to preserve the 93,000 acres of land called for locally grown food, farms, fields and forests is considered visionary, creating “a national treasure.”

“We became a pacesetter 40 years ago with our vision to set aside this land to be used for the production of food and fiber to give our citizens food security and access to locally grown foods. We are a model for other communities,” said Todd Greenstone, of the Maryland Farm Bureau.

But the urgency and reality of climate change propelled the current Council toward new visions and goals of a sustainable Montgomery County, a county that produces its own clean energy and reduces greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2027 and eliminates emissions carbon emissions 100 percent by 2035.

“There is absolutely no way to do it without shifting the entire electrical grid to clean renewables,” said Councilmember Hans Riemer (At-large). “Every time we flip a power switch, we plug in our phone to charge it, we plug in our vehicle to charge it, every time we use power, we are drawing from the grid. And as long as the grid is powered by coal, natural gas, we’re creating emissions. And so the best most effective most rapid thing is transforming that energy grid to 100 percent clean renewable.”

Riemer and co-sponsor Craig Rice introduced Zoning Text Amendment 20-01 that would allow solar, 1,800 acres or three square miles of it, in the Agricultural Reserve in Montgomery County. And after more than 90 minutes of public testimony in March, and several hearings and seven hours of debate Council Committees the last two weeks, at times technical discussions on soil type classifications and megawatts and rooftop feasibility, a joint committee voted 4-1 to move ahead; Friedson dissenting.

The full Council is expected to deliberate and vote in September.

MOST ENVIRONMENTALISTS would support both goals, but now they’re pitted against each other; sustainable local farming on what has been preserved and pristine land versus industry to produce clean sustainable energy and where to put it.

“This is a tough issue, this a divisive issue, and I acknowledge that. It isn’t an easy one, and it’s one where our own family is split,” said Riemer, who facilitated three committee meetings the last two weeks.

The Sierra Club gave Riemer’s cause a jolt when it supported the zoning change to allow solar in the Agricultural Reserve.

“Sierra Club is a conservation organization. We believe strongly in sustainable agriculture,” said Alfred Bartlett. “We recognize the urgency of what you are talking about, the need to decarbonize our electricity grid. It’s one of the main sources of carbon and other pollutants. ...That balance is what we’ve been working on. So we do absolutely support maximizing all of the feasible and available sites that are possible as quickly as possible, rooftops, and parking lots, and brownfields, and landfills and so on.”

Bartlett said even if the county was able to maximize the use of rooftop solar, it would only create approximately one half the amount of energy Montgomery County would need to meet its clean energy goals. And it would require much more time.

“That points to the urgency of doing ground mounted solar,” said Riemer.

“Everybody has said, ‘Why can’t we put that on rooftops; Not until we put these on rooftops.’ That’s what I’ve heard and if I thought there was a viable path for us to provide for all of that capacity on rooftops, of course that’s what I’d be devoting my energy too,” said Riemer.

Riemer and Rice envision farming coexisting with solar use, “Other countries are looking at this problem and they are not saying it’s an either/or. You’re not taking land out of agricultural use for solar, you’re blending the two,” said Riemer.

Riemer found support on the Transportation and Environment committee as well as the Planning,Housing and Economic Development committee that joined together to discuss this issue.

“This is a significant bill. We know it will provide enough energy to power 54,000 homes, if passed, that’s a big piece of legislation,” said Councilmember Tom Hucker (District 5). “We need a vigorous solar industry, working in all different areas.”

SLOW DOWN, BACK OFF, said Ginny Barnes, of Conservation Montgomery.

“It’s premature to be opening the reserve to such an obvious industrial use, not a community use. …The work on Thrive 2050 is showing us how important assuring sources of local fresh food will become as the climate crisis worses,” said Barnes. “The 93,000 acre reserve is needed to grow food, fiber and forests; it’s vital to maintaining clean water and clean air. It is not to be sacrificed to a purely industrial use, no matter how green it may seem. There is no doubt we must turn to alternative sources of energy. Solar will help us if sited in what are considered compatible places.”

“We urge the County Council to slow down and back off of this proposal. The unintended consequences far outweigh moving forward with unnecessary haste,” Barnes said.

The reserve is not the proper placement for solar because once that path is forged, it can’t be turned back.

“I think we have to ask ourselves what is the risk here. If we do too much, allow for too much, and there are issues, we can never change that, we can never take that back, we can never fix a problem that we potentially created by not fully understanding the breadth and magnitude of the decision that we make,” said Councilmember Friedson. “If we do too little, which is possible, I recognize that, we can always come back next year and add to it, we can always come back two years from now and add to it. We can always come back at a later date and slightly, methodically and thoughtfully expand the amount of coverage as appropriate once we see how this works, what the impacts are.”

Montgomery Countryside Alliance, is an organization that pursues the mission “to promote sound economic, land-use and transportation policies that preserve the natural environment, open spaces and rural lands in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve for the benefit of all Washington Metropolitan area residents.”

Caroline Taylor, Montgomery Countryside Alliance’s executive director, said the agricultural reserve already serves a vital environmental presence and role.

“We reject the assertion that the reserve is not doing its part towards climate change adaptation and mitigation,” Taylor said. “The stated premise that our protected farmland and open space must give way right now to an industrial use because of urgency and in the absence of a comprehensive plan is deeply flawed. The record holds strong evidence from stakeholders including members of the county’s climate change working group,” said Taylor.

“I’m not here to argue against the advancement of renewable energy, I'm here to fend for the reserve,” she said.

FARMERS UNANIMOUSLY OPPOSE the council’s text amendment, said Jeremy Criss, of the Montgomery County Office of Agriculture.

“What was the agricultural reserve created for in the first place?” asked Criss. “Was it created for agriculture? That’s what we’ve been told for 40 years. Now it looks like that’s not going to be the case moving forward.”

Criss gave several examples of farmers in the Agricultural Reserve with modest solar projects that followed the 120 percent rule, generating enough energy to power all farm uses plus 20 percent to sell to the grid. He also gave examples of larger projects, from 25 to 85 acres, in nearby counties in Maryland that cause farmers grave concern.

“I am here because I want to make sure you know why the farmers are unanimously opposed to this policy. The legislative intent of the Agricultural Reserve is for farming for agriculture, the farmers believe, and they do support solar, but the farmers believe the 1,800 acre cap, while it’s something that might be here today, there's nothing that you all can do that’s going to tie the hands of a future council that would want to revisit and expand this cap. Once we establish this precedent, once we allow the Ag Reserve for something other than farming, we may in fact see significant acres of loss to the farmers,” said Criss.

Many farmers in the Reserve lease rather than own their land, which means property owners could decide to switch uses to make more money with solar. “There’s no way that farming is going to compare to the economic return that property owners are going to be able to appreciate once this ZTA is passed, “ said Criss.

ANDREW FRIEDSON has one month to influence other councilmembers.

“It’s a question of what is the appropriate use for the agricultural reserve. What are the consequences for decisions that are made with changes to the allowable uses within the agricultural reserve. If we pursue policies that change uses within the Agricultural Reserve, what impact does that have on agriculture in Montgomery County and farmers who make agriculture possible. That’s what we should be focusing on here,” said Friedson.

He asked Councilmembers to be “a lot more understanding and sensitive to farmers” in the way they would to residential homeowners.

“The comparison to what you're talking about here is if we passed a zoning text amendment that said, ‘We are going to allow 100-foot-tall buildings in all residential zones, but don’t worry, we’re going to restrict it, we’re only going to allow 250 of them to be built.”

He pointed to the irony of solar advocates having difficulty finding land that works for solar.

“The same challenges that we’re talking about for solar, that it's hard to find land that works, there are similar challenges for farmers and finding land that’s farmable,” said Friedson. “We are passing a broad law that puts at risk a lot of very important prime usable farmland and it seems premature.”

Viewpoints

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Alfred Bartlett

Alfred Bartlett, Sierra Club

”We recognize the urgency of what you are talking about the need to decarbonize our electricity grid. It’s one of the main sources of carbon and other pollutants. ...That balance is what we’ve been working on. So we do absolutely support maximizing all of the feasible and available sites that are possible as quickly as possible, rooftops, and parking lots, and brownfields, and landfills and so on.”

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Ginny Barnes

Ginny Barnes, Conservation Montgomery

”It’s premature to be opening the Reserve to such an obvious industrial use, not a community use. …The work on Thrive 2050 is showing us how important assuring sources of local fresh food will become as the climate crisis worses. The 93,000 acre Agricultural Reserve is needed to grow food, fiber and forests; it’s vital to maintaining clean water and clean air. It is not to be sacrificed to a purely industrial use, no matter how green it may seem.”

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Hans Riemer

Hans Riemer, County Council (At-large)

“If I thought putting [solar] on rooftops and parking lots would get us a huge increase of energy, in the near future, I would be focusing all of my effort on how to do that, but I think that that is a long term strategy. And even when you max it out, it’s only about half of what you need. …There is no solution that we can do faster than cleaning up the grid, shutting down coal, gas and oil sources of power generation and replacing them with solar and wind. There is nothing we can do that is faster in its scale and is going to have a bigger impact than decarbonizing the electric grid. The only true short term strategy that humanity has is to clean up the grid.”

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Andrew Friedson

Andrew Friedson, County Council (District One)

“We have to ask ourselves what is the risk here. If we do too much, allow for too much, and there are issues, we can never change that, we can never take that back, we can never fix a problem that we potentially created by not fully understanding the breadth and magnitude of the decision that we make. If we do too little, which is possible, I recognize that, we can always come back next year and add to it, we can always come back two years from now and add to it. We can always come back at a later date and slightly, methodically and thoughtfully expand the amount of coverage as appropriate once we see how this works, what the impacts are. I feel strongly about protecting the Agricultural Reserve and trying to speak up for the farmers which are such an important part of Montgomery County and our community.”

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Jeremy Criss

Jeremy Criss, Montgomery County Office of Agriculture

“In conclusion, to make sure you know why the farmers are unanimously opposed to this policy. The legislative intent of the Ag Reserve is for farming, for agriculture, the farmers believe, and they do support solar, but the farmers believe the 1,800 acre cap, while it’s something that might be here today, there's nothing that you all can do that’s going to tie hands of a future council that would want to revisit and expand this cap. Once we establish this precedent, once we allow the Ag Reserve for something other than farming, we may in fact see significant acres of loss to the farmer.”

photo

Caroline Taylor

Caroline Taylor, Montgomery Countryside Alliance

“We reject the assertion that the reserve is not doing its part towards climate change adaptation and mitigation. The stated premise that our protected farmland and open space must give way right now to an industrial use because of urgency and in the absence of a comprehensive plan is deeply flawed. ...“I’m not here to argue against the advancement of renewable energy, I'm here to fend for the Reserve.”

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Craig Rice

Craig Rice, County Council (District Two)

“Look, I agree with you wholeheartedly that there needs to be a coexistence between energy conservation and agriculture. It’s one of the reasons I’ve signed onto this bill from the very beginning. I do believe that there is a mix. …So with this pilot program, what if it doesn’t go well, what if it doesn’t grow the crops and then damages the soil or whatever the case maybe. And then what happens? We have to be fair about understanding that there is concern about those. What happens if it becomes more profitable all of a sudden to do solar instead of farming?”

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Todd Greenstone

Todd Greenstone, Montgomery County Farm Bureau

“Montgomery County Farm Bureau is in opposition of ZTA 20-01. We are opposed to using up scarce, important agricultural land for such an endeavor at this time. …It is our position that rooftops, parking lots and roadways make more sense logistically.”

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Will Jawando

Will Jawando, County Council (At-large)

“What’s been weighing on me is, of course, we need to allow for solar in some capacity for environmental reasons. I agree with that one hundred percent. Of course, we also need to make sure we have a stable and secure food supply in our Agricultural Reserve. I also believe that our Agricultural Reserve is a national model for preserving land for agriculture and is critical for ensuring that we have locally sourced food.”

Zoning Text Amendment 20-01

Solar Collection System

Planning staff recommends approval of ZTA No. 20-01, with modifications, to revise the Solar Collection System use standards to allow larger facilities in the Agricultural Reserve (AR) zone, amend the provisions for Solar Collection Systems in other zones, and amend the provision for site plan approval in the AR zone. Staff believes that ZTA 20-01 – if modified as recommended in this report - can strike a balance in addressing the desire to provide more solar production opportunities in the County, including the ability to provide “Community Solar” benefits to those who cannot, or prefer not to, install solar panels on their homes, with the protection measures for properties that are near these facilities. In the case of solar facilities that are not accessory to a principle use, the legislation continues to require site plan approval and provides limitations on the size of the overall system and the height of any freestanding structure.