County Council Looking At Regulating Solar Projects

They  would allow large solar arrays on ag land as a Special Exception.

A proposal to regulate solar projects in Frederick County was presented on Tuesday to the County Council. Steve Horn, the Director of Planning and Permitting, said these regulations were developed after the county received four applications for large solar projects. “Toward the end of 2015, and early 2016, we received four applications totaling properties in excess of 500-acres,” he said. “One particular project was a 200-acre solar panel array.”

He says this is a first for the county. “When the large scale projects started to come up, it was definitely a different animal for us,  something we’ve never seen,” says Horn.

Under the proposed regulations, residents, business owners and farmers could installed solar facilities on their properties for their own individual use. But large solar arrays which supply electricity to a grid would be allowed as a special exception in the agricultural zone, with certain conditions.

Some of those conditions would set the minimum size at 75-acres, no structure may exceed 20-feet in height, a minimum setback of 400-feet from all adjoining residential properties, and a setback of 50-feet from all property lines. Also, security fencing would be required. And all structures would be removed from the property if it ceases to be a solar project.

Many of these solar projects are being proposed for agricultural land because it’s much less expensive compared to industrial and commercially zoned properties.

Councilman Billy Shreve took issue with the 75-acre size of the solar facility. “Why do you want to limit the size,” he asked. “What does that do?”

Horn said these projects are beneficial in that they use renewable energy. “But we also have neighbors out there and other property owners nearby that while they may not necessarily be opposed to these, they may be opposed to 200-acres in size. It may be more acceptable to them if we could limit the size,” he said.

Councilman Tony Chmelik said he favors some type of regulation, but that they  not be too rigid. “I do see some of that need and some peoples’ concerns. But I’m a little concerned about over regulating something off the bat,” he says.

In addition to these proposed regulations, there was another topic presented during the Tuesday workshop. Director of Finance Lori Depies said the county has a business personal property tax on power generating facilities, like solar panels, if they’re used to provide electricity to the grid. The rate is $2.34 per $100 of assessed value.

But she says many applicants have asked that they provide a Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) rather than pay the business personal property tax. She said the County “could chose not to enter into a PILOT with them, and ask them that they have to make the economics work at the $2.34. Or, you could enter into a PILOT with them at some level of value we deem feasible for the county.”

The Council said it was interested in these regulations, and members are expected to discuss it again at a later date.

In January, 2016, County Executive Jan Gardner signed an executive order putting a six-month moratorium on solar projects. That moratorium is scheduled to expire on July 15th, unless it’s extended.