Ted Elder

Zoning doesn’t apply to spread of arrays throughout Worcester

(Nov. 8, 2019)  Concern about the possible spread of solar farms in Worcester County will remain just that and nothing more, as County Commissioner Ted Elder learned Tuesday, when he was advised that the county has no authority to regulate them.

“These large solar farms are proliferating in the county,” Elder said. “And in doing so, first off, they’re taking up agricultural land, something I think is in the county plan that we’re supposed to preserve. Also in the plan is the rural nature of the county.”

That may be, but Ed Tudor, director of review and permitting, told the commissioners that local jurisdictions have no enforcement control over solar farms. Solar farms, otherwise known as large scale solar projects, are regulated by the Public Service Commission. If the project has a rated capacity of 2,000 kilowatts or more, it must file for a state Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity.

Just this summer, the Maryland Court of Appeals ruled that the certificate process preempts local zoning regulations, thus banning local jurisdictions from enforcing its zoning laws on solar farms, according to Tudor. He added that some solar farms in the county voluntarily follow the county’s zoning laws, even though that isn’t a requirement. 

Tudor noted that solar panels are used for a variety of purposes across the county, such as power lighting on signs, billboards, commercial advertising and traffic control devices. Some small panels also power fence chargers on farms and security lighting. Tudor added that trying to pass a ban could risk placing these uses into nonconformity.

“We have a lot of solar permits issued all the time,” Tudor said. “I would caution against taking any action, quickly.”

Elder listed another concern: what happens to potentially hazardous material when the solar farm life ends?

“When these government subsidies run out on these things and they have a life of 20 or so – 20 to 30 years, are we going to have a conglomeration of solar junk yards all over Worcester County?” Elder said.

In response, County Attorney Maureen Howarth and Tudor explained that in solar farm contracts, the Public Service Commission requires that equipment be removed at the end of life. 

Elder also questioned the tax base, noting that those who rent or lease land for solar farms generate a higher income than when they farmed land. Worcester County Financial Officer Phil Thompson clarified that solar farms typically pay much higher taxes because that land is valued at a much higher rate than agricultural land, with some of the larger projects in the $20 to $30 million-dollar range.

Ultimately, the county must abide by state regulations, unless new legislation is passed in the Maryland General Assembly, which Tudor hinted could be a possibility.

“I see a big push to do something in that regard,” Tudor said.

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