Proposed Expansion of Solar Facilities in Agricultural Reserve

AvatarElizabeth Rogers, Attorney

On January 21, 2020, a Zoning Text Amendment (No. 20-01) was introduced by the Montgomery County Council to amend the use standards for Solar Collection Systems.  The ZTA is primarily intended to allow larger solar facilities in the Agricultural Reserve (AR) Zone. 

Currently, a freestanding Solar Collection System is only permitted as an accessory use in the AR Zone.  The proposed ZTA seeks to expand this use allowance, by permitting larger Solar Collection Systems, subject to Site Plan approval by the Montgomery County Planning Board.  However, notably, the ZTA proposes a cap on the total amount of land that can be devote to solar facilities in the AR Zone – cumulatively, across all AR zoned land, a maximum of 1,800 acres can be covered with solar panels (i.e. approximately 2% of the AR zoned land).  

The County’s climate action goals are a key driver behind the ZTA.  Montgomery County has committed to:

‘100% elimination’ of carbon emissions by 2035 (with an 80% reduction by 2027).

The County cannot achieve their goals by simply reducing the amount of energy buildings consume – changes must also be made to the source of that energy.  In a fact sheet put out by the Montgomery County Council, it was noted that over 51% of County emissions come from the energy used to power buildings in the County. It is estimated that the proposed ZTA could reduce overall County carbon emissions by up to 4.4%.  

The ZTA is nearing its final stages of approval. The County Council held a public hearing on March 3.  The Council has received a significant amount of testimony, both for and against the ZTA.  Organizations and agencies, including the Sierra Club and the Montgomery County Planning Department/ Planning Board have expressed their support for this legislation, given its important environmental impacts.  Others have expressed concern about the impact of larger solar facilities on the scenic views and agricultural production in the Ag Reserve, among other issues. 

Following the public hearing, the Council’s Planning, Housing and Economic Development Committee (PHED) held three worksessions on July 9, July 16 and July 22.  The PHED Committee recommended several revisions to the ZTA that will be incorporated into the draft that is transmitted to the full County Council. But there are several issues that the PHED Committee did not reach a final conclusion on, which may be considered by the full Council (e.g. potential limitations on the installation of solar facilities on prime agricultural soils, steep slopes, or other environmentally sensitive areas).  

The full County Council is currently expected to consider the ZTA on September 29.