EASTON — The Public Service Commission (PSC) may be required to take county comprehensive plans into account when considering proposed energy generation facilities, should a bill dealing with the issue pass the state legislature.
House Bill 1350 was amended and passed the House of Delegates Thursday, March 30. It originally would have required local approval of permit applications to build energy generation facilities, like a solar farm, but was amended to say the PSC has to take into account a county’s comprehensive plan, instead.
Either way, proponents of the bill say it gives counties more say into where and how many energy generation facilities are locally built. With the renewable energy industry starting to ramp up in the state, and the state recently increasing its renewable energy portfolio standard, rural counties like Talbot are looking for more control over what they consider to be local zoning issues.
The PSC currently holds hearings for public comment when energy generation facilities occupying more than two acres are proposed.
If HB 1350 passes, it would require the PSC to take into account consistency with county comprehensive plans when it renders a decision on facility proposals, and would be required to articulate how its decision is consistent with a county comprehensive plan, Del. Johnny Mautz, R-37B-Talbot, said.
“There’s always this concern when you go to a (PSC) public hearing and everybody puts their comments in, but the decision is ultimately made in a hearing room in Baltimore, a long way from the Shore,” Mautz said, later adding that he believes the PSC is doing the best it can to take and consider local comments.
“I think it’s a very positive change in the permitting process, particularly for the Eastern Shore,” Mautz said, “because we’re located a long way from Baltimore and our local ordinances and our comprehensive plans are a lot different than, I assume, may of the other ordinances the PSC would deal with, in that we have so much environmental sensitivity and we have so much (agriculture) land, and right now it’s a crucial time because of the growth in solar energy and the ... focus on land on the Eastern Shore.”
Mautz said the rise in developers that want to place renewable energy facilities is a new challenge for the Shore, and “the wave of solar is something new to everyone, even the PSC.”
Locally, Talbot County is considered a model county for this issue.
In December, Talbot County council members passed legislation that puts a 726-acre cap on medium- and large-scale solar arrays in agricultural zones of Talbot County where the projects are permitted. There is no size cap on individual projects. Small-scale solar projects like rooftop solar panels are not impacted by the cap. A special exception from the county is required for large-scale solar arrays.
Before the county’s legislation passed, council members passed a moratorium on new solar development until the details of the county’s legislation could be hashed out with stakeholders. The idea was to slow solar field development before it takes up too much prime agricultural land, a staple of the Shore’s economy and draw.
Talbot County Council Vice President Corey Pack, who was president of the council when the solar-related legislation passed, said the county is looking to have more control over solar fields built in the county. Pack pointed to Queen Anne’s and Kent counties as examples of places that have seen an influx of solar field development taking out large agricultural fields out of production.
“These are zoning issues and zoning issues should be controlled by local government, not state government,” Pack said.
The bill now goes to the Senate for consideration, where similar legislation has been introduced.