By Chris Katz and Desmond Boyle
Baltimore Watchdog Staff Writers
Local residents told the Baltimore County Council Tuesday that they supported a bill that would place a six-month moratorium on the construction of commercial solar farms in rural areas of the county.
The majority of residents and farmers who spoke at the council’s work session said the construction of solar farms would harm the environment and hurt them financially.
“There is no regulation on the construction of these solar farms,” said Santos Mirabal, a resident of rural Baltimore County. “We bought a beautiful farm property that I want to raise my children on. What’s to stop that from becoming a sea of black panels?”
But others urged the council to allow solar farms to be built, saying they will generate clean energy and give farmers another possible revenue stream.
“I’ve owned farms for several decades, and when prices for food are low then you need to find ways to make money,” said Glen Ersdale, who plans to turn just under 7 of his 200-acre property into a solar farm.
The council is considering a bill (68-16) that would stop the development of solar farms in rural areas of the county until April 30, 2017. The proposal comes as the county has begun receiving applications from farmers and other business interests seeking to build solar farms in northern Baltimore County for commercial purposes.
During the six-month moratorium, the council would ask the Planning Board to study the environmental and economic impact of solar farms and propose amendments to the county’s zoning regulations that would govern the location and use of the farms. The current regulations do not address solar energy facilities.
According to county documents, the council wants the Planning Board to consider the appropriate zoning classification for solar farms, the minimum acreage that should be required for a facility, and the impact a solar facility might have on nearby properties.
The board’s recommendations are also expected to include proposals for the maximum number of solar panels that would be permitted on a farm, whether solar facilities should be permitted in environmentally sensitive areas, and how solar farms would be secured.
The board would have until April 30, 2017 to report its findings and recommendations to the council.
The proposed six-month moratorium, which is scheduled to come up for a vote at the council’s Oct. 17 meeting, would not apply to residential households seeking to install solar panels as a substitute for traditional energy or for solar projects on local, state or federal land that produce energy for government use.
Opponents of the solar farms said Tuesday that the moratorium is needed because the county has not studied the potential negative environmental and economic effects of the facilities.
Most of the residents who spoke said the negative consequences of the farms would outweigh the positives.
“Let’s stop calling it a ‘solar farm’ because it’s just electrical generation,” said Timothy Fales, a farm owner in the county. “My farm has been passed down through the generations, and we have worked too hard on it to have it diminished by solar panels.”
Paul Merritt, who has been working on farms his entire life, pointed out that a certain use of herbicides would also be used with the solar panels, which in turn would create erosion problems for the soil.
Opponents said the solar farms would have a long-term affect on their neighbors because the facilities could be in use for 25 years or more.
“If in 10, 20, or even 30 years I want to sell my farm, I won’t be able to make nearly as much money as I would today without those panels,” said Debra Mirabal, a farm owner in the county. “My family has worked very hard to keep our farm in good shape, and we would like the property value to reflect our hard work, not a government project.”
Will Harman, a resident of Baltimore County, also supported the moratorium. He said solar farms would diminish the success of the state’s thriving agricultural production of food.
“Agricultural land should not drive the movement of solar power,” Harman said.
Others disagreed. Proponents for quicker installation of solar farms said a moratorium would waste time and money on projects that have already been planned and approved by other organizations.
The proponents also argued that the solar farms would not necessarily drive down property values or make the land less aesthetically pleasing.