Solar Siting in Montgomery County: Testimony ZTA 20-01
On October 5th, Clean Water and Audubon Naturalist Society submitted testimony to the Montgomery County Council explaining our questions and concerns about a proposal to open up the Montgomery County Agricultural Preserve for solar development.
The Montgomery Council Agricultural Preserve is a planning marvel, designed to save farm land and rural space in northwestern Montgomery County. Farm land is traditionally very attractive to developers - it is low-cost land that is generally untouched, and so easy to mould to a developer’s purposes. As farmland began to be developed significantly after World War II, the county took this bold step to create an agricultural preserve to reduce farmland fragmentation, save existing farms, maintain historical sites and experiences, and maintain natural spaces.
To accomplish this Montgomery has used two major tools: transferable development rights and easements that restrict non-agricultural uses in the reserve loan. These programs have either purchased or leased development rights or have depressed property values to undervalue the land and reduce the tax burden of landowners.
Through the years the agricultural preserve has been under constant attack from developers and new land uses that seek to capitalize on undervalued land and use it for non-agricultural purposes. We are concerned that non-accessory use of solar siting on agricultural preserve land is yet another attempt of developers to access land at less than market value.
We fully recognize that climate change is an urgent matter and that we need bold investment to generate more of our energy from solar, but we also reject that solar development must be pursued to the detriment of farms or forest.
Through thoughtful planning we can increase the land available for solar that maximizes its co-benefits and minimizes any potential negative impact on our farms and forests.
Across the country and the state, solar developers have had a keen eye to access preserved farmland because it is cheaper than redevelopment or rooftop solar. Just like why home developers and other industries seek access to farmland, solar developers are interested in this land because decades of conservation practices have preserved largely virgin areas that are cheap to develop.
When we think of farms and farmers, it is important to realize that farmers are not necessarily the land owners, and when a farm lease is transferred to a solar lease the land owner benefits, but the farmer loses farmable acres. Farm financing is difficult, and farmers rely on a certain acreage in order to afford machinery and other equipment that they need to produce crops. Increased farm fragmentation has been linked with higher costs of production, lower crop yields, and lower profitability for the farmer.
Farm leases are prevalent in Maryland. According to the USDA’s National Agricultural Statistic service, agricultural producers lease over 42% of all agricultural land in Maryland. The most common form of lease is a cash rent lease, where the lessee pays a fixed amount to the landowner on a per acre basis and the tenant makes the crop and livestock decisions.
If the solar lease pays more per acre than the crop lease, then that means crop land comes out of production and Montgomery County farmers will find it less viable to farm. The intent of the agricultural preserve was to safeguard Montgomery County farmers - but if they are no longer able to lease enough land to remain profitable, then farms will continue to disappear.
How much of the agricultural preserve is farmed by farm-owners versus how much is leased?
What protections will Montgomery County offer to farmers who lease land to make sure that they are still able to access sufficient acreage?
When the coronavirus pandemic became pronounced, one of the first shocks we all experienced was seeing the vulnerabilities in our food system. It was March, and local farms were able to ramp up production and community supported agriculture programs took off. Outdoor farm markets became popular as Marylanders sought reliable and safe ways to source their food. While some farmers were able to transition to this consumer market, others have struggled. We urge caution in removing land from the agricultural lease market until we know what the impact of COVID-19 will be.
The Montgomery agricultural preserve was specifically preserved for agricultural, not industrial, uses. The county and state used a myriad of different programs to limit development on this land, including purchasing development rights and tax benefits. While agriculturally preserved land is attractive to solar development due to its low cost and ease to build it to suit the development, nationwide there is sufficient previously developed land that could be used to meet the Paris Agreement clean energy and solar goals. Within Maryland, there is sufficient previously developed land to meet our Renewable Portfolio Standard goals. While, to our knowledge, no analysis has been completed specifically for Montgomery County (or these seem to be pending on the results of the County’s Climate Action Plan), these analyses are possible, and the Chesapeake Conservancy is in the process of completing a solar siting methodology for Baltimore City and Baltimore county.
If a new use is approved on preserved land, how does this impact those programs?
Will landowners be required to reimburse the preservation program for the increased value of their newly industrialized land?
How does solar development on preserved land support Montgomery County’s long term planning goals as it will be proposed in the county’s new General Plan - Thrive 2050?
Will opening up the agricultural reserve enable other jurisdictions to meet their renewable energy goals? Has this energy demand been factored into the current zoning proposal?
We are very concerned that because agricultural land is cheaper it will deter development on more expensive lands like brownfields, landfills, or impervious surfaces, despite universal agreement that those are the ideal lands to target for solar development. Brownfields, landfills, and other impervious surfaces should be encouraged as this is land that can generate extra income and revenue and are otherwise a cost and risk to society, as opposed to competing with cropland. Energy development needs to be “smart from the start” to mitigate impacts on areas with higher environmental risks and to minimize their impact and potential conflicts.
Many states and counties throughout the state and country are grappling with how to balance land use planning with the need to invest in clean, renewable energy. New Jersey is a good example of a state that has developed a comprehensive solar siting plan. New Jersey uses a screening tool that classifies land into three categories: preferred, not preferred, or indeterminate. Preferred land is largely land that is impervious land, not preferred land is forest, wetland, agricultural, and open space, and indeterminate is used for land where more information is required to categorize it. In the Baltimore case being prepared by the Chesapeake Conservancy, the recommendations are currently focusing on balancing solar development with conservation of prime agricultural land and other sensitive environmental areas, emphasizing the need for solar within the already built environment. First mapping what lands are preferred is a good first step to steer solar development where the county finds it most beneficial.
It is not hard to imagine that with mapping and planning that some solar development will occur on agricultural land, but it is important to not inadvertently steer the bulk of the solar development to carefully preserved agricultural land simply because it is cheapest in the short term.
County’s Climate Action Plan
The County Executive branch held five citizens-based climate action working groups last year and into early this year. The five working group findings were presented at the Feb 27th, 2020 Climate Townhall. Now the County’s Climate Action Plan is its second and third phases which involves having an outside technical expert team to continue the work started by citizens’ workgroup findings and to technically come up with a comprehensive new county Climate Action Plan. The final Climate Action Plan will then be presented to the Council by early 2021. With a pending Climate Action Plan in process and review phases, we recommend that the Council waits to have in hand the climate action plan before moving forward with ZTA 20-01.
New County General Master Plan / Thrive 2050
The County’s General Master Plan is currently under revision. The final new General Plan is projected to be released by 2021. We expect to see in the new General Plan that the Ag Reserve will continue to be highlighted for its role in producing food and fiber, supplying natural ecosystem services such as water and air purification for our region through maintenance of farms and forested land. The Ag Reserve also serves a large carbon sink through its role in regenerative carbon in the soil, and reforestation programs such as ReLeaf the Reserve, that plant new trees that sequester carbon and provide resilience against increased flood and drought risks. We anticipate that the new general plan will reaffirm and strengthen the Ag Reserve’s role and source in climate mitigation and adaptation, helping Montgomery County become a climate resilient place for all residents to live in. In addition, Thrive 2050 is predicated on understanding residents’ and stakeholders’ visions of the future of Montgomery County. Because the New General Master Plan is currently still in revision, we recommend that the Council wait for final review and approval of the New General Master Plan in 2021 before moving forward with ZTA 20-01.
3. Smart Siting for Solar - Common Across the U.S.
It is not unusual that an urgent push for renewable energy has generated conflict among land users and protectors, including environmental advocates. Over the last decade, both wind and solar development has taken off locally in a wide variety of communities, and each has grappled with it in its own way. From ridgetop wind farms in New England, to giant turbines disrupting whooping crane migratory pathways in the Midwest, to enormous California Desert solar arrays plowing under desert tortoise habitat, conflicts with wildlife protection and local viewsheds are common concerns. For this reason, a broad variety of national environmental groups, including Defenders of Wildlife, The Nature Conservancy, Natural Resources Defense Council, and The Wilderness Society (among others) have promoted a “Smart from the Start” upfront planning framework to find low-conflict places to site renewable energy. Farmers and agricultural land-owners, also, have experienced mixed results with renewable energy siting throughout the country, with some farmers happy to receive lease payments for arrays or turbines sited in their fields and others unhappy with the increased energy infrastructure in their communities. The Nature Conservancy heard similar concerns in a series of listening sessions it conducted across Maryland in 2018, with a particular concern for the loss of prime farm land.
Frankly, in this regard, renewable energy is little different from any other energy type. ALL energy types have tradeoffs, and the only way to eliminate those tradeoffs completely is to use far less energy, including electricity. This goal may indeed come in conflict with a key way to decarbonize our economy, which is to electrify goods and services (like transportation and home heating) that currently run on gasoline, natural gas, or other distributed fossil fuels. We, like all environmentalists today, recognize that the urgency of reducing the impacts of the climate crisis mean that we must undertake changes across every one of our energy and infrastructure systems. But that does not mean that we can’t balance benefits and costs in one sphere, like electricity production, with those from another, like soil carbon sequestration and local food system resilience. We urge Council to hurry up with such thoughtful studies, planning exercises, and mapping tools so that we can be ready as soon as possible to direct solar energy to actual low-conflict, and low-environmental risk areas.
Montgomery County should be pursuing a “yes, and…” approach to the climate crisis, rapidly investing in and facilitating decarbonization across every sector of the local economy, and pursuing “no regrets” strategy that avoids irreversible conflicts such as losing wildlife habitat or undermining the fragile farming economy. Some of these efforts are underway, others are opportunities for improvement, and still others could be the next policy ideas to come. Below are just a few that the County is already considering and could and should ramp up heavily:
Electrify buses and incentivize EV charging infrastructure. Just switching to electricity over fossil-fuel combustion can dramatically reduce energy demand, even if the grid is not fully decarbonized yet.
Ensure that planning and zoning truly incentivizes smart growth, access to a growing transit network, and the “wedges and corridors” vision of Montgomery County. The Thrive 2050 planning process is a critical opportunity to implement a vision where people live close to work, have accessible public transit, and nature is preserved around and through housing and economic centers.
Adopt a new and improved International Green Construction Code (IgCC). Currently under review by the Department of Permitting Services, this initiative to update construction codes across the commercial building sector could dramatically reduce demand for energy for heating, cooling, lighting, ventilation, and transportation if fully implemented. Council should work with DPS to implement an aggressive and forward-looking version of the IgCC.
Reduce food waste through municipal composting. Reducing food waste ranks #3 on the Drawdown Project’s list of climate solutions to achieve a 1.5℃-warmed world, ahead of distributed solar generation (systems up to 1 MW). Food waste is still a significant outstanding source of waste in the county, and must be captured through diversion, reduction, and composting to reach the 70% waste diversion goal codified in Bill 28-16.
And yes, install distributed solar energy on rooftops, parking lots, garages, county buildings, landfills, brownfields, and more. Reduce local permitting burdens and use financing opportunities modelled on those of the Green Bank to scale up deployment on these low-conflict sites.
Create a Plan for Solar Siting
Massachusetts and New Jersey are good examples of how a comprehensive solar siting study can create a durable, beneficial rubric for scoring potential solar sites. By creating a rubric and a comprehensive study, Massachusetts and New Jersey can steer solar development where it is best for their states. Doing this can also maximize co-benefits and minimize harm to rural areas. Montgomery County can use its planning authority to steer solar development where it is most beneficial to the county, as opposed to steering solar development where it maximizes profit margins for developers.
Some solar will likely need to be approved on agricultural lands, but it is important that solar siting is balanced and is done in a planned way that does not open up a rush of development on cheap, agricultural lands. This plan should not only plan for the clean energy needs of Montgomery County but should consider the energy demands from surrounding jurisdictions and how the county would like to handle those pressures as well.
Require installations meet community solar standard
The current bill language only requires “aggregate net metering” which is a significant loophole that allows the development of commercial solar facilities on protected farmland with no obligation to provide that power to down-county communities that cannot have solar on their own properties. This loophole allows the power to be sent anywhere to the highest bidder and does not build the community solar program or accessibility. If protected farmland is to be opened up to solar, it should at least provide real and tangible benefits through community solar.
Include explicit protections for tree cover, wetlands, and waterways
As written, the bill does not effectively protect existing tree cover, wetlands, and waterways. Developers are routinely granted variances to remove existing trees or encroach on wetlands and waterways, and we are very concerned that the agricultural preserve will lose these features that have been protected so far. A comprehensive, GIS-based planning process that directs solar to the best, least environmentally-sensitive places throughout the county (including brownfields, rooftops, and landfills, etc.) should be performed in order to affirmatively exclude our most important environmental resources from solar development.
Reduce slopes to minimize erosion
The bill allows solar arrays on land with up to a 15% slope, which is excessive. Erosion can be significant on slopes of 15%, and we strongly recommend that this slope be reduced to a much lower grade.
Strengthen Pollinator Requirements
This bill relies on Maryland’s solar pollinator requirements, which have been strongly protested by the beekeeping and pollinator community. As the Central Maryland Beekeepers and Maryland Pesticide Education Network have previously raised, the existing state standard allows for a solar facility to qualify as exceeding pollinator habitat standards while routinely spraying pesticides. This is unacceptable. This effectively invites pollinators to visit the habitat while poisoning them.
No pollinator habitat should be certified that allows the routine spraying of pollinator-killing pesticides. While the state program is flawed, Montgomery County should reject it and create their own that does not allow for the routine spraying of pesticides.
Strengthen agrivoltaic requirements
The bill includes a massive caveat that facilities may be approved as long as they have land that is “suitable for grazing.” Is grass sufficient to be suitable for grazing? Are weeds suitable for grazing? If this is the case, then basically any solar facility will be suitable for grazing. Instead of requiring that the land be suitable, the land should be actively grazed for a set minimum amount of time each year in order to demonstrate that it is truly suitable for grazing.
The bill should also designate what type of grazing animals is the minimum standard. Should these sites be suitable for grazing cattle, horses, goats, or sheep? The requirements for grazing cattle will be different than if sheep are a suitable grazing animal.
Expand protections to USDA class 2 and 3 soils
The bill currently protects USDA class 1 soils, which are stream buffers and islands. These are not the soils that are farmed - prime and productive soils are class 2 and 3 and should be protected in the legislation. As it stands, there are 2,000 to 3,000 acres of non-prime farmland in the agricultural reserve. Those are the only acres that should be open to legitimate community solar projects.
Preserving local farms is critical for local resilience, especially in the face of the current pandemic and future uncertainty for climate change. If other disasters shock the food system in the future, maintaining the ability to produce food locally is critical. Protecting prime and productive farmland needs to be prioritized.
Electrify the transportation and building systems
Simultaneously to decarbonizing the grid, the county needs to electrify the other sources of greenhouse gas emissions like the transportation sector and improve efficiency in the building sector to reduce electrical demand. Even if we don’t currently have a clean grid now, shifting to systems that can be more easily decarbonized with new sources of energy, like electrifying buses and other fleet vehicles, requiring solar installation or capability for new buildings, and improving building efficiency standards will enable sustained improvements. The county is already looking and adopting more electric bus systems and is the process of adopting the new IGCC code for green buildings - both of which will require a larger electric energy source. The installation of more solar panels just needs to be well planned for a long term sustainable transition to decarbonize our grid.
Decarbonizing our electric grid is important, but we need to be careful not to sacrifice decades of planning to preserve our agricultural land. As we have seen before, developers of all types (from housing to highways to solar) seek the cheapest land available, and that is typically farmland and forests. Since the 1980s, Montgomery County has taken a lot of care to protect the agricultural preserve and that foresight needs to be applauded.
As we decarbonize the electric grid, through planning, investment, and incentives we can encourage co-location on existing impervious surfaces and provide beneficial reuse of these “ruined” lands. We can leave our vegetated land vegetated, improving our climate resiliency by reducing our carbon emissions while enabling a local food source.
Thank you for your attention to this matter.
Clean Water Action / Clean Water Fund
MD Conservation Advocate
Audubon Naturalist Society