"Solar farms" Sparking Controversy in Baltimore County | WYPR

"Solar farms" Sparking Controversy in Baltimore County

Mar 30, 2017

Solar panels on the roof of a barn at Liberty Delight Farms in Baltimore County.
Credit John Lee

When Glenn Elseroad drives you around his 500 acre farm in Western Baltimore County, the first thing he shows you are the 7,000 trees he’s planted. Then there are the cover crops planted in the winter.

“You know, eliminates erosion that you have there and it also fixes the nutrients in the soil,” Elseroad said.

Elseroad takes pride in his land conservation. And that includes his renting about 19 acres of farmland to a company that plans to install solar panels. The property is on Hanover Pike, about four miles north of Reisterstown. It’s on a slope facing south. Elseroad says it is difficult to farm because of erosion and dangerous, hidden entrances on to the road. So it made sense to rent it out for a solar farm. He can make some money, and Elseroad says he believes in renewable energy because climate change is real.

“You could have gone back 10 years ago and I would have thought it was foolishness,” Elseroad said. “But I don’t believe that any longer.”

But the prospect of solar farms is touching off disagreements between neighbors and a debate over the proper use of farmland in Baltimore County. Even the term “solar farm” is controversial.

The county farm bureau rejects calling it a “solar farm,” saying instead they are solar facilities that take up valuable farmland.

Shane Hughes owns Liberty Delight Farms near Reisterstown. He raises beef, pork, chicken and rabbits. Hughes has solar panels. But they are on the roof of a barn, not on land. And the solar is not for profit, but to run his farm. Hughes said putting solar panels on farmland does not make it farming. And he said anyone who does that should lose the property tax break farmers get.

“You’re not going to graze and animal on it,” Hughes said. “You’re not going to grow a crop on it. What other use is it?”

The Baltimore County Council has tried and failed three times to regulate solar farms. The most recent attempt was in February by Councilman Wade Kach, who represents much of the rural part of the county.

That one failed after Councilwoman Vicki Almond withdrew her support. Almond said it’s a complicated issue. On one hand, you want to help the farmer trying to make a living. On the other hand if you don’t regulate solar, Almond said you are looking for trouble.

Almond said, “We don’t want it to become the wild wild west, but we also don’t know are there 20 projects out there or are there 100 that are looking at it? We really don’t know.”

Those who want tough regulations say they worry about nearby homes losing value, glare off the panels bothering drivers, and the rural landscape of the north county being ruined. Councilman Kach said solar facilities currently are not covered by county law.

“They’re not mentioned at all,” Kach said. “So this is new territory.”

Also, if a solar facility gets so large that it produces at least two megawatts of power, it’s considered a public utility. Then the Maryland Public Service Commission, not the county, calls the shots. A spokeswoman for the PSC says while it would have the final say, it would seriously consider local ordinances and zoning.

So far the PSC has received no applications for a large solar farm in Baltimore County. The largest solar farm approved in Maryland so far is a 1,000 acre facility in Somerset County. The prospect of a mega-acre solar farm coming to Baltimore County worries Teresa Moore, the executive director of the Valleys Planning Council, a non-profit that focuses on land use in Northern Baltimore County.

Moore said,“The zeal for the renewables is outpacing our ability to plan for it.”

Councilwoman Almond expects the council will take another swing at regulating solar farms this spring.