Solar Permitted in Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, Carefully

Solar Permitted in Montgomery County Agricultural Reserve, Carefully

Areas with the soils needed for growing food are protected.

Hans Riemer voted against his own bill to permit industrial solar in the Agricultural Reserve. But other councilmembers told him what they believe the headline should read.

“I believe when we are all done here the headline will be Montgomery allows solar in the Ag Reserve, which is huge,” said Nancy Navarro (District 4).

“I do think the headline will be today that we’ve opened up solar in the ag reserve,” said Will Jawando (at-large).

“That should be the lede line in this story,” said Craig Rice (District 2).

Riemer objected that the council made changes to his original bill; in the end, the council protected the two classes of soil most needed for farming and made any solar project a conditional use. The Planning Department conducts intake review on Conditional Use cases to verify completeness. Once applications are deemed acceptable, they are sent to the Office of Zoning and Administrative Hearings (OZAH), which ultimately approves or denies the Conditional Use.

“What we proposed is to power 50,000 home with this clean energy and really that would be the cornerstone of our climate change agenda here in Montgomery County,” said Riemer (at-large). “I think everyone knows where I stand.”

The 1980 County Council protected 93,000 acres of land from development and developers, saying it should be protected forever. The decision was a climate-change masterpiece lauded across the country for its vision.

“It is very expensive to build rooftop and parking lot solar and as a result of that cost compared to the anticipated revenue there is just not a lot of it happening,” said Riemer.

“It is just not profitable, not profitable enough,” he said.

THE FINAL VOTE was 7-2, with Riemer and Tom Hucker dissenting.

“We unanimously declared a climate change emergency and when you have an emergency, you take action, you take action rapidly,” said Hucker.

Evan Glass didn’t support the changes, but voted for the final bill.

“I am deciding that I am going to vote for this, because I’ve been elected to get things done and not to take protest votes,” said Glass (at-large).

“It’s not what a climate emergency demands of us,” he said.” My vote today is to start that process officially but we have a long way to go.”

“While it may mean that there are not as many projects that can move forward I do believe it opens the door for some projects to move forward,” said Sidney Katz (District 3).

The Council mandated that the Planning Board examine how the projects work by 2023, so it can make changes, adaptations, improvements, additions, or protect the Reserve more.

In that time, the market and its rapid technological advances will determine the validity of Riemer’s objections and if solar projects can or can’t move forward in other parts of the county, concerns raised by Riemer, Hucker and Glass.

Potomac’s councilmember, Andrew Friedson, spent a lot of time during the process explaining the importance of the Agricultural Reserve and why he fought to protect the “integrity of the Reserve.”

Advocates have as well.

Gabe Albornoz (at-large) said he’s learned “so much” about both solar and the Agricultural Reserve and “have come to even better appreciate the steps that the county took 40 years ago to establish the Agricultural Reserve, which at the time, and even today, was one of the most profound climate actions decisions as a body as a jurisdiction could have made.”

“That one third of our land can not be developed except for agricultural use is profound, something that needs to be recognized and celebrated for generations to come,” said Albornoz.

Unfortunately, the process pitted people who would understand the importance of both causes against each other.

“None of us would disagree with the urgency and concern of climate change and the fact that it is an existential threat facing our country and our world. There’s no question about that,” said Albornoz.

“I appreciate all the correspondence and communication and I know this issue has generated a lot of emotion and I’ve certainly felt it on a number of occasions,” he said. “I’ve been called a climate denier in the last few weeks and I've been told I’m radically opposed to solar, both of which are completely false and couldn’t be farther from the truth.”