Farm Or Solar Farm? A Fight Over Land Use Roils Montgomery County A controversial proposal would open up Montgomery County's protected agricultural reserve to solar development.
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Farm Or Solar Farm? A Fight Over Land Use Roils Montgomery County

Farm Or Solar Farm? A Fight Over Land Use Roils Montgomery County

Doug Boucher wants to install 12 acres of solar panels on a sunny slope on his farm in Dickerson, Md. Jacob Fenston/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU/DCist

Montgomery County leaders have declared a climate emergency, and they've vowed to go carbon neutral within the next 15 years. But one of their first efforts to embrace clean energy on a large scale has been bogged down in committees, compromises, and amendments for months.

The controversy centers around a proposal to allow solar development in the county's Agricultural Reserve, which covers about one-third of the county and was set aside for farming 40 years ago as development spread through the region.

The proposal would rezone the reserve, allowing 2% of the land to be used for solar — enough to power roughly 50,000 of the roughly 370,000 in homes in the county.

"However you think about what we're going to do to tackle climate change, the answer comes back to: we need solar and we need wind," says Councilmember Hans Riemer, who sponsored the legislation. He says there are no other options for creating this much solar power in the county as quickly — there just aren't enough rooftops and parking garages to cover with panels.

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But opponents worry a zoning change would open the door to more development in the reserve, and threaten to unravel the farming economy that has thrived there for decades.

"Our ag. reserve is frankly a treasure that was bestowed upon us by previous policymakers," said Council Vice President Gabe Albornoz during a meeting in January. He said issue is one of the most challenging he'd faced while serving on the council. "I've lost track of how many meetings I've had with with really unbelievably impressive and much smarter-than-me people on both sides," he said.

The council is set to vote on the plan — called Zoning Text Amendment 20-01, and nicknamed ZTA — on February 23. Lead sponsor Riemer has pulled his support and plans to offer an alternative after amendments he calls "poison pills" were added to the original plan. As the debate drags on, the county's plan to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels has yet to make significant progress. Greenhouse gas emissions in the county have plateaued in recent years, after declines in the early 2000s.

A desire to 'share the sunlight'

The reserve in Montgomery County is touted as a national model for planning and has been replicated around the country. It was the result of efforts to slow suburban sprawl.

Between 1950 and 1979, Montgomery County lost a total of 81,000 acres of farmland — an area twice the size of Washington, D.C. In 1980, county leaders carved out 93,000 acres where development would be banned, where the land could only be used for agriculture. Farmers in the new reserve — who might have profited by selling their land to developers — were instead given transferrable development rights, which they could sell to developers who wanted to build denser housing elsewhere in the county.

A table from the 1980 master plan for Montgomery County's agricultural reserve, showing loss of farmland in the county. Montgomery County Planning Department/ hide caption

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Montgomery County Planning Department/

But some people in the ag. reserve feel some of the land could now be put to better use. Doug Boucher lives on his 77-acre farm in Dickerson, Md. — it's been in his wife's family since the 1830s.

"What you see here are the remains of last year's crop of soybeans," Boucher says, his boots crunching over the soy stubble poking through the snow. He comes to a high point in the rolling fields, where the sun, reflecting off the snow, is blinding.

"Starting right about here and extending south is where we wanted to put solar," he says. In the distance, the stacks of the recently decommissioned Dickerson coal-fired power plant are visible, rising next to the Potomac River.

Boucher wants to install panels on about 12 acres of his land — replacing the soy and corn and generating enough energy to power several dozen homes, he says. It would bring in three times the revenue compared to farming. But Boucher, a retired ecologist who used to direct climate research at the Union of Concerned Scientists, says the money isn't why he's interested. He wants to use his land — and the solar energy beating down on it — to fight climate change.

"You know, we can share the resource, share the sunlight with our fellow human beings," he says.

Doug Boucher already buys clean energy to power his home, and drives a hybrid. But he wants to put in 12 acres of solar panels to "share the sunlight." Jacob Fenston/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU/DCist

Just a few miles away, Lauren Greenberger already has solar on her property. It sits atop her 1850s farmhouse. "If you went up on the roof there, you could see that I have solar panels that cover about 75% of my needs," Greenberger says. She also has a battery system in the basement to store the power the panels create, so she doesn't need a generator when the power goes out.

Greenberger is president of the Sugarloaf Citizens Association, a local group with the goal of protecting farmland. She agrees there is a climate emergency, but worries the large-scale solar development envisioned in Riemer's zoning change would be an existential threat to the reserve.

"This area is a precious and unique resource that is limited. We are losing farmland in Maryland by hundreds of acres every year," Greenberger says.

Solar developers could easily out-compete farmers looking for land, Greenberger says. And she worries one zoning change could invite more changes in the future, including increasing the limited acreage dedicated to solar.

"We are very reluctant to say this is the first place that Montgomery County should start to take away land for for production of solar energy," Greenberger says.

Lauren Greenberger owns a 20 acre cattle farm in Dickerson, Md. Jacob Fenston/WAMU/DCist hide caption

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Jacob Fenston/WAMU/DCist

The concerns about balancing solar and agriculture are not unique to Montgomery County, especially as the solar industry expands on the East Coast, where there is less open space compared to the sunny western states that pioneered solar.

"We're still trying to figure out what that sweet spot is, where we can have some solar and still have ag. production," says Paul Goeringer, a senior faculty specialist with the University of Maryland's College of Agriculture and Natural Resources. Goeringer is working on a project looking at the impacts of solar in agricultural areas.

"One of the big concerns is, at what point, if enough lands taken out of ag. and put into solar, have we reached some critical mass where ag. is no longer viable?" For example, Goeringer says, if enough land is taken out of farming, businesses that support agriculture may start to fold, causing a chain reaction — farmers would then have to drive farther to get the products they need, making it more difficult to operate in the area.

Beyond the confines of the ag. reserve, there have been numerous fights over land use and solar. But far more land is lost to residential development and sprawl each year than to solar.

'We can have it all'

In January, after outcry from farmers and others, the County Council added amendments to the plan to limit where solar could be built and to add an additional approval process for solar development. Proponents said the amendments were a compromise, allowing solar, but with more protections.

"I want it all," said Councilmember Sydney Katz during debate over the amendments. "I want commercial solar there and I want the ag. reserve to continue to prosper."

The original ZTA barred solar on the most fertile soil — considered class I by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The amended legislation would also make the next level — class II — off-limits. That would cut in half the number of parcels that could host solar projects, according to the county planning department.

Leslie Elder, a director with the Coalition for Community Solar Access, told the council in January the amendment would virtually eliminate options for solar in the ag. reserve. When combined with the need for solar to be within a short distance of power lines, and the fact that not every landowner would want solar on their property, Elder estimated that only two properties in the entire ag. reserve would likely go solar.

Back on his farm, Doug Boucher says have to stick with corn and soy if the amended ZTA passed. "Turns out that instead of having lots of different areas where we could put in the solar, we have none," he says.

Riemer says the amended zoning change is worse than taking no action — it would set a precedent he says, for rejecting solar. "It's basically Montgomery County saying 'not here,' and it will embolden other communities also to say, 'well, not here.' Then when enough local communities in Maryland have said 'not here,' it becomes impossible for the state to achieve the clean energy goals that we are trying to achieve."

Riemer says he plans to offer a compromise proposal — a scaled-back version that would allow solar on one-third third as much land, developed over several years, with a built-in review process. But, at this point, he's not optimistic it will pass.

This story is from DCist.com, the local news website of WAMU.

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