Stopping the Combine: Farmers Can’t Compete for Land in Montgomery County

Making room for enough solar to make a difference.

Randy Stabler stopped his combine in the middle of a field in the Agricultural Reserve to join Montgomery County Council’s virtual Town Hall meeting. Council held the meeting Thursday, Nov. 5 to continue public discussion on a zoning text amendment that would permit solar on land the 1980 Council permanently set aside for agricultural use.

“At this point in time, this is very troubling to the agricultural community, the very viability of agriculture competing for a resource we need, that being the land,” said Stabler.

“It’s important that all of the information is put on the table and discussed,” he said.

Montgomery County Council was set to vote on the zoning text amendment that would permit industrial solar on 1,800 acres in the Agricultural Reserve on Oct. 20.

Instead, they sent the zoning text amendment back to committee worksessions for more discussion. And, a few days later, Council President Sidney Katz and at-large councilmember Hans Riemer announced a town hall meeting for Nov. 5 to hear more people, especially advocates for the Agricultural Reserve.

Jeremy Criss didn’t stop a combine but thanked the council for slowing down the process to allow more input from farmers in the Agricultural Reserve to voice their opinions.

“The Agriculture community remains unanimously opposed to the Zoning Text Amendment,” said Criss, director of Agricultural Services for Montgomery County. But he suggested a compromise.

“Is there a way that we can look at the total 1,800 acres and to consider phasing that in over a period of time, to evaluate how it is working or the unintended consequences?”

THE COUNTY’S GOAL is 100 percent elimination of carbon emissions by 2035; 80 percent by 2027. Solar advocates say using 1,800 acres of the Agricultural Reserve for solar will be essential to generate the needed clean energy for the county.

“We’re running out of time on climate change,” said Mike Tidwell, who said he was frustrated that the council has not already taken action on the zoning text amendment.

“I think the bill that was passed out of committee is a great compromise bill, ready to be voted on by the Council,” said Tidwell. He reminded the Council of their vote in 2017 declaring that climate change is an emergency.

“This is concrete, this is real, it’s ready to go now,” said Tidwell, founder of Chesapeake Climate Action Network.

Alfred Bartlett, of Sierra Club, said, “Solar has got to be a key part of our future. We keep coming back to the basic question: If we don’t build solar on agricultural land, how do we meet the clean energy needs that we have going forward?”

Joyce Breiner, of Poolesville Green, said of farms and solar, “Why not marry those two? We’re out of time, when dealing with the issue of climate change.”

Corey Ramsden, vice president of Go Solar Programs, thinks solar should be advocated for all over the county, including the Agricultural Reserve. “We think this is a great opportunity for the county to lead in the state and design a regulation that successfully supports the surrounding agricultural community.”

FINAL VOTE by the Council is expected in January 2021.

Before then, the Council will hold a series of Town Hall and working group meetings, although details have not been established.

Councilmembers recognized that they needed an additional step in the process, said Katz. “Everybody has the same goal to get more solar, the question is how do we get it, how is it going to be effective, and what are we affecting while we’re doing it.”

He hopes that a working group can help brainstorm solutions that help the county meet solar goals but not at the peril of land that may be needed now and in the future to feed local residents.

“We want you to talk to each other,” said Katz.

Several speakers pointed out that the reason solar advocates want use of agricultural land is to maximize profit.

About seven people in the solar industry expressed the importance of solar, the benefits including cost savings for the public in community solar projects, and the need to find space quickly as climate change progresses. They claimed that the Agriculture Reserve is essential for solar.

Others, including Denisse Guitarra of Audubon Naturalist Society, suggested siting solar on landfills, mall parking lots and other parking lots, Pepco power line right-of-way, brownfields, as well as rooftops and buildings that proponents of solar say are too costly or problematic.

But right now, putting solar in the agricultural reserve would be cheaper and more profitable for the solar industry.

“The county made a decision to make an Ag Reserve and the value of the land is artificially depressed” because it can’t be developed, said Alfred Wurglitz. “Speaking as a business person, I would simply say that means there’s more profit to be made.”

Wurglitz said the county should think about the land in the Agricultural Reserve and its affordability as a public good. “Do we want to give that public good to the solar industry?” he asked.

CAROLINE TAYLOR, executive director of Montgomery Countryside Alliance, a group formed to protect the Agriculture Reserve, said she has 40 new and expanding farmers looking for acreage to “grow the food that goes directly on our table and the fiber that ends up in clothing,” including wool.

In its Land Link program, Montgomery Countryside Alliance pairs farmers with landowners in the Reserve. Some of the farmers looking for land to farm are new immigrants, Taylor said, including some from Africa.

With the ZTA under consideration, already some local landowners are receiving lease offers far higher — sometimes 10 to 20 times higher — than the going rate of agricultural land leases, according to the Montgomery Countryside Alliance. This upward pressure will make it much harder for the organization to find land for farmers who want to begin or expand.

Robert Cissell, from Montgomery Agricultural Producers, wanted to ensure that farmers whose livelihood depends on the land have a voice.

After hearing a series of speakers from the solar industry, Lauren Greenberger, of Sugarloaf Citizens Association, challenged the assumptions voiced during the meeting.

“This is supposed to be a town hall meeting,” said Greenberger. “Most of the people that we’ve heard from are from the solar industry [not from the community]. This should be the community having a chance to talk, and I don’t see that, I see people with an agenda of their own.”

She recommended incentivizing owners – that could be property owners, parking lot owners, building owners, shopping center owners, owners throughout the county – to help find locations for solar, a goal stewards of the land want to see as well.

“We don't need to take up our farmland that we’ll need in a couple of decades. This is one of the few places in the country that will continue to be productive [for growing food] and will continue to have water when other land dries up,” said Greenberger.

She voiced a premise the 1980 prescient Council already knew.

“That farmland we have, we’re going to need for agriculture,” she said.

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