Last week, the Montgomery County Council’s joint Planning, Housing and Economic Development (PHED) and Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy and Environment (T&E) Committees met to consider recommended amendments to Zoning Text Amendment 20-01, a bill proposed to allow commercial solar facilities in Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve. The Committees voted to support several amendments, but not those most critical to ensuring that Montgomery County’s Agricultural Reserve can host commercial solar projects without displacing farmers, harming its agricultural economy, and undermining the legal protections that have allowed the County to preserve this land for agriculture for forty years. The Montgomery Countryside Alliance has released a video highlighting the importance of this proposal and the Agricultural Reserve.
Thirty-eight Sixty-two environmental, agricultural, and civic organizations in Maryland - including Conservation Montgomery, the Friends of Ten Mile Creek, four Sunrise Movement hubs, the Montgomery County Farm Bureau, and the League of Women Voters of Montgomery County - have signed to a joint letter to the County Council protesting the advancement of ZTA 20-01 as written and demanding that the Council approve amendments recommended by the Ag Reserve Stakeholders members of the County’s recent Work Group. The core requirement of these amendments is that farming remain the sole primary land use in the Ag Reserve, with solar classified as a Conditional Use alongside every other type of industrial or utility infrastructure. The Stakeholders also recommend protecting both Class 1 and Class 2 soils from being covered by industrial solar. These amendments will facilitate solar development in the Ag Reserve while protecting the Reserve and the farmers who depend on it. The committee did not incorporate these amendments before voting to advance the bill to the full Council.
"The survival and integrity of the Reserve rests on broader understanding by the public and policy makers that it is a vital part of the county’s economy, the regional environment, and its recreational and cultural ecosystem," said Royce Hanson, former Chair of the Montgomery County Planning Commission and the original architect of the Ag Reserve. "Over the past 40 years of the Reserve's existence, we've seen many well-meant, but not well-thought-out, proposals to convert some part of it to other uses. The proposal to make industrial solar projects a Permitted Use is one of them. It is inconsistent with the Ag Reserve master plan and AR Zone by making agriculture an accessory use to a primary industrial use. It is, therefore, a backdoor rezoning that fundamentally impairs the integrity of the Reserve, and it is half-baked. There is no rationale for allowing as many as 180 ten-acre solar arrays to be randomly scattered across the Reserve without careful consideration of the suitability of their location and impact on homes and farms. At a minimum such utility facilities should be a Conditional Use."
“Farming is a business. To have to compete with a non-farming business, industrial solar, may be the obstacle that brings an end to the Ag Reserve,” said Doug Lechlider, co-chair of the Work Group and a farmer in the Ag Reserve. “The working group pressed for safeguards to keep farming in the reserve from being overwhelmed while allowing solar in the AR. We must protect class 1 and 2 soils and have the legal assurance, through Conditional Use, that Agriculture is still number one in the Ag Reserve. Montgomery County farmers are among the most innovative farmers in the world. They have adjusted and thrived in this sensitive Chesapeake Bay Watershed with restrictions imposed upon them not present in other parts of the country, and they deserve to be protected.”
“The Ag Reserve Stakeholders compromise approach better ensures protection of farming as primary use in our designated, master planned, nationally lauded, increasingly important Agricultural Reserve,” said Caroline Taylor, Executive Director of the Montgomery Countryside Alliance and a member of the Work Group. “Take note: there is universal support for farms to have by right up to 200% solar energy generation (currently at 120%) as part of their operation. Outside of that, for large projects that aren’t part of a farm’s operation, we want to see a reasonable approach to allowing solar in the Ag Reserve while still protecting farming.”
“Everyone in Montgomery County benefits from a well-protected Ag Reserve,” said civic activist Diane Cameron. “During the pandemic, while 100,000 County residents have been food-insecure, farmers in the Farm to Food Bank Program have significantly ramped up the supply of healthy table crops to families in need. As the climate crisis worsens, we need to sustain the ability to grow more of our food closer to home.”
“Conditional use is the only zoning classification that makes sense for commercial solar,” said Lauren Greenberger, President of the Sugarloaf Citizens Association and a member of the Work Group. “Things like transmission lines and cell phone towers require conditional use approval in the Ag Reserve. Howard County and Baltimore County both make solar a Conditional Use and it has worked well for them. Montgomery County should do the same. Four of the eight members of our Work Group proposed the Conditional Use amendment in a good-faith effort to find a legally defensible pathway for solar to come to the Agricultural Reserve. Without it, this bill will break the legal tools that Montgomery County’s farmers have relied on for forty years. Without it, we cannot support this bill.”
“Farmers are already being harmed by speculation on solar development,” said Lee Langstaff of Shepherd’s Hey Farm. “The majority of our farmers lease land in the reserve, and renting farmers can’t afford to compete with the deep pockets of the solar industry; some are already facing changes or termination to their leases as a result. And right now, there are 40 people who want to start farming - next generation and expanding farmers including immigrants, people of color, women, and veterans - on the waiting list for the Land Link program, but only 15 landowners are currently offering farmland. If ZTA 20-01 passes in its current form, more tenant farmers will be displaced from their land, and fewer new and aspiring farmers will be able to enter the Ag Reserve.”
“The Ag Reserve is a planning marvel - the forethought Montgomery County had forty years ago has saved this land in the heart of the DC metro region on the promise of keeping agriculture local and accessible. Montgomery County does not need to make solar a Permitted Use in the Ag Reserve to act on climate,” said Emily Ranson, Maryland Director of Clean Water Action. “A recent industry survey showed that Montgomery County is already second in the state in terms of both the amount of solar power being generated locally and the number of solar installations within the county. When looking for opportunities to site community solar projects, the County can look to warehouse rooftops, brownfields, industrial sites like the recently-retired Dickerson coal plant, and - yes - carefully-planned solar projects on farmland that go through the Conditional Use process. But making solar a Permitted Use undermines the forty year promise of the Reserve to keep land accessible to farmers - and displacing non-landowning farmers is not climate justice.”