The Agricultural Reserve in Montgomery County is 93,000 acres, almost one-third of the County, set aside 40 years ago in a special zone for agriculture. Development is not permitted except in support of agriculture. Our “Ag Reserve” was created by a far-sighted County Council, who believed that open space, an active agricultural economy, and clean air and water right next to the nation’s capital would forever benefit not just Montgomery County, but the whole region. And so it has. But today it faces a challenge to its very existence, like never before in its history.
Forty years after the creation of the Ag Reserve, a contingent on the current Council is seeking to introduce industrial-scale solar energy facilities onto agricultural land. If they prevail in a Council vote on January 26, land values will spiral upward, quickly pricing farmers off the land. Already, solar developers are combing the Ag Reserve looking for acreage to lease. Put simply -- farmers cannot compete with industry to lease scarce land. Make no mistake, we are talking about the demise of farming in Montgomery County.
The advocates of industrial solar on the Council have proposed an unprecedented zoning change for the Agricultural Reserve. For the first time, an industrial use (commercial solar projects – up to 150 of them) would become a permitted use of agricultural land, on equal footing with farming.
Why did the solar lobby focus on the Ag Reserve? Because they spotted low land costs. Then they convinced a few County Council members that locating solar in the Ag Reserve is essential if the County is to be serious about climate change. If the solar lobby can convince today’s Council to start breaking down the Ag Reserve with 1800 acres for starters, who would doubt that the same lobby will be successful when it comes back for more acreage (and less farming) as soon as the 1800 acres is exhausted?
Why would any member of the Council acquiesce in this scheme? In fairness, they want Montgomery County to do more to promote renewable energy to battle climate change. On that, we can all agree. The County should do everything it can to incentivize consumption of renewable energy. But – and this point is conveniently ignored by the solar lobby - electric power is inherently transportable, at relatively low cost. The power we consume locally can be and is produced pretty much anywhere in the mid-Atlantic. The land in the Ag Reserve, on the other hand – is an inherently local resource. It cannot be moved, produced elsewhere, or replaced.
The Council should consider three questions. First, is the Ag Reserve still worth preserving and enhancing? Second, is putting industrial solar into the Ag Reserve a good option? Third, can some amount of solar be introduced into the Ag Reserve without undermining the primacy of farming?
As to the first question, a resounding Yes. The soil in the Ag Reserve is worth its weight in gold to all of us. In 1980, we could not have foreseen how important local food production would become to reduction of greenhouse gases and a more nutritious food supply. Farmers across the country are investing in “farm to table” including farmers here in Montgomery County. We need to do more to support local food production, not less. We should be expanding existing programs to help first-time farmers, including minorities, get started in farming.
Second, Montgomery County has better alternatives to combat climate change and transition to renewable energy. The County has already leveraged some of its significant purchasing power to buy reasonably priced renewable energy for County-owned facilities and low income residents. We should do more. For example, the County is positioning to establish a Community Choice Energy Program, a nationally proven model to allow municipal governments to aggregate demand and purchase clean energy at scale for all residents. This program is widely expected to be enacted in Annapolis in this year’s legislative session.
Third, a compromise approach is possible. A diverse Council-appointed working group came together recently. Half of them (all but the solar lobby members) proposed a compromise, to allow solar projects in the Ag Reserve through the “conditional use” approval process. Just as a cell phone tower or a pipeline would require a dedicated permit to be built on land zoned for agriculture, so too would commercial solar projects. Conditional use zoning is a simple concept – it means each project gets evaluated on its merits and there are no “free passes” without an evaluation. This approach has been adopted for solar in nearby Howard and Baltimore Counties. Farming would be preserved as the principal land use, while solar projects would be approved on a case by case basis.
If the Zoning Amendment is to be adopted, it must require “conditional use” zoning, rather than open up a solar land rush that will skyrocket land prices and undermine farming in a matter of a few years.
No one can believe that farmers in Montgomery County would have made the commitment, or done all the hard work, to keep on farming, if they had ever thought Montgomery County might not be serious about preserving the Agricultural Reserve. The Ag Reserve cannot be moved or recreated. It must be protected, right where it is, for all of us and for future generations.
Jim is a resident of Barnesville who farms several hundred acres. His family has farmed in Montgomery County for 300 years. Jim is former Chair of the Maryland Environmental Trust, a founder and current Chair of the Sugarloaf Countryside Conservancy (a land trust focused on the Agricultural Reserve), and former Co-President of Montgomery Countryside Alliance.