For the first time since Frederick County created zoning regulations for large solar arrays in 2017, a company has applied for approval.
Planning staff members are no strangers to the proposed 151-acre project, which Biggs Ford Solar Center, LLC — a subsidiary of Coronal Energy — has sought to construct on a farm near Walkersville since 2016. However, the project is the first large solar project to be sent back from the Maryland Public Service Commission to Frederick County for review and approval.
“We have our own criteria in the ordinance that this application is judged by,” county Planning Director Jim Gugel said.
The solar developer has proposed installing nearly 97 acres of photovoltaic panels on the 151-acre property, which is zoned agricultural. This far exceeds the county’s solar ordinance, which allows solar panels to be installed on up to 10 percent of farmland’s tillable acres under a “solar floating zone” designation.
The project would also be built within a priority preservation area and within 2 miles of the protected Civil War viewshed of U.S. 15 known as the “Journey Through Hallowed Ground.” The farm also contains prime farmland soils and is contiguous to the Walkersville growth area. All four designations prohibit the construction of utility-scale solar, according to the ordinance.
It is going to be fairly obvious to the Planning Commission, which will review the application next month, that some elements of the project do not meet the county’s limits, Gugel said.
“If you look at the criteria based on their application ... they’re not checking a lot of boxes,” Gugel said.
Coronal Energy Director of Project Development Ryan Gilchrist declined to comment on the county’s solar floating zone criteria.
A long fight
In January 2016, County Executive Jan Gardner signed a moratorium on the review of new large solar project applications. In the six months prior, the county had seen a surge in applications, which would have dedicated 490 acres of land to solar panels.
Biggs Ford Solar Center, LLC was waiting for its special exception application to be reviewed at the time the moratorium was issued.
A year later, in February 2017, the developer then applied for a Certificate of Public Convenience and Necessity through the Maryland Public Service Commission. The application was denied in December 2017. The company appealed the denial and lost in April of this year. The developer was then given 30 days to apply for a “floating zone” in Frederick County.
Instead of restructuring the project to fit within the parameters of the county’s solar ordinance, the developers submitted the same project on Sept. 21.
Commissioners for the town of Walkersville unanimously agreed on Oct. 24 to submit a letter opposing the rezoning application, The News-Post previously reported.
Gardner has considered legal responses to the project in the past, but since it was returned to the county for consideration, she has decided to let the process run its course, said Vivian Laxton, the communications director for the Office of the County Executive.
The process will include a review by the Planning Commission and then the County Council. After the council votes, Gardner will have final veto power.
The Planning Commission will hold a public hearing on the Biggs Ford Solar Center project on Dec. 19 at 7 p.m. in Winchester Hall.
Councilwoman M.C. Keegan-Ayer (D), the architect of the county’s solar ordinance, knows the parameters of the ordinance are tight and is already exploring options with the Frederick County Farm Bureau to loosen them.
“We realize the legislation may possibly be restrictive,” she said.
The “solar floating zone” was designed to allow limited construction of large solar arrays on agricultural land between 10 and 750 acres in size. Solar panels can cover only 10 percent of the tillable acres of the parcel or multiple contiguous parcels, or up to 75 acres.
At these sizes, solar companies are not interested in building in the county.
One way to make solar projects more feasible in the county — while still protecting farms — would be to lessen the size restriction on properties that do not have prime soils. However, most farmland in Frederick County has prime soils, said Frederick County Farm Bureau President Robert Ramsburg.
The fight has always been whether to allow large solar installations on smooth, flat farmland, which is ideal for the production of solar power but also food, he said.
It is an issue that has torn him up internally, Ramsburg said. He is stuck between allowing farmers to do what they want with their land and protecting farmland from development.
“I’ve had several people reach out to me and I understand their pain,” said Ramsburg, noting that 2018 was a terrible year for most crops.
The Frederick County Farm Bureau executive board plans to discuss potential changes to the solar ordinance Tuesday night, said Ramsburg, whose three-year term as president will end next month. Solar arrays will also be discussed at the Maryland Farm Bureau convention next month.
Once the new County Council is sworn in on Dec. 3, Keegan-Ayer plans to begin to work on revisions to the solar ordinance. She needs the farm bureau’s support, or nothing will pass, she said.
“There are farmers who would still like to see this,” Keegan-Ayer said.