A June 18 public hearing on zoning in Baltimore County’s third district revealed a conflict over the construction of certain solar farms - in support, the landowners and solar companies, and in opposition, Councilman Wade Kach and neighbors around the plots in question.
During the hearing, which was open to public comment, residents raised concerns with Kach’s proposed rezoning of several lots to designation RC-50, which would reserve the land for conservation of the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area. Present at the hearing were Mary Zodhiates and Glenn Elseroad, landowners attempting to lease their land to solar companies, as well as the lawyer representing their case, Larry Schmidt.
Schmidt argued that RC-50, one of only two zoning designations that prevent the building of solar farms, is improper because it only protects land within 1,000 feet of the Chesapeake Bay or a tributary, and Schmidt said his clients’ lots are well out-of-bounds. However, Kach said that he is protecting what he calls “prime and productive soil” in the county, as well as the home values of properties that would face the proposed solar farm and the health of nearby reservoirs like Loch Raven.
“Some of the materials that are used to manufacture these solar panels can loosen and end up in the water. And that’s controversial as to whether or not that happens. I’ve read both ways. Now I don’t want to take the chance. I just don’t,” Kach said.
Baltimore County does have a zoning designation, RC-4, set aside for the preservation of the watersheds used for drinking water, and Schmidt denies the claim that solar panels can produce harmful chemical runoff in a storm, adding that any damage would be repaired immediately. However, Kach said that RC-50 was more appropriate for these lots because he said that a personal investigation found that the stormwater runoff would end up in the Bay or a tributary.
“I think my biggest problem is that I believe that solar should be put on the roofs of businesses, should be put on top of parking lots,” Kach said. “To take away our farmland and agricultural land for solar is just the wrong direction.”
Schmidt said these landowners are attempting to work through a Maryland state program, the Community Solar Program, which seeks to, in part, encourage private investment in solar energy by putting together landowners and companies who can install the mounted, above-ground panels.
In order to build the solar facility, however, the landowners must obtain a special exception from the county administrative law judge, according to a July 2017 county law that defined what a solar facility was and how it would be regulated in the county. It also limited the number of solar facilities to 10 in each district. After several attempts, the legislation passed 6 to 1, with Kach voting nay.
But if RC-50 zoning for these lots passes, the landowners and solar companies will not be able to move forward with the special exemption application at all.
“I just think it’s wrong for Councilman Kach to pull the rug out from under these property owners who are playing by the rules and doing what they need to do under the law,” Schmidt, of Smith, Gildea and Schmidt LLC, said.
“After all this investment - time, effort, money - that they’ve spent moving these projects, [Kach] has the authority as the councilman to rezone these properties. And he’s rezoning them to a classification which obviously does not fit. They’re not in the critical area.”
Both sides accuse the other of refusing to compromise.
“The problem is that there was really no effort made to work with the neighbors to try to come up with an accommodation of some sort … so that the view [of the solar facility] would be diminished,” Kach said.
Schmidt said that previous attempts to accommodate concerns failed, even after new plans were drawn up to satisfy neighbors near the Zodhiates lot, but Kach said that no attempts to accommodate were made regarding the Elseroad lot.
“Some people just simply don’t want to see them in their neighborhood. And it’s really no matter what we say or do, the answer is, ‘I don’t want to see it in the neighborhood,’” Schmidt said.
Zodhiates had more direct opposition to the councilman. “Frankly, I don’t care for him. I disagree with him. And I think speaking with him is a waste of time.”
The final vote on this rezoning issue is scheduled for August 26.