Local Solar Facility Siting Ordinances
Note: to access the county codes discussed in the following case study, we recommend that you access the Smart DG+ County Zoning Guide at dnr.maryland.gov/pprp/Pages/smartdg.aspx.
Solar Facility Siting Case Study
Type: Small Scale, Medium- and Large-Scale, and Community Solar Energy Systems on Undeveloped and Developed Land
Zoning Used: All zones, either by right or special exception depending on type of system
Description of Process:
A solar facility had been proposed for an approximately 319-acre property on Egypt Road that had previously been planned for a subdivision of approximately 675 houses. City Planning Commission and Council members believed that a solar facility would be preferable to a large residential subdivision.
Two work groups were formed, each focusing on different sized solar facilities. One included the city attorney, two planning staff members, three planning commissioners, and the applicant’s attorney. A second group consisted of two City Council members, three planning commissioners, and city staff. City staff also received valuable information on solar energy sites from DNR’s Power Plant Research Program and Rob Davis, Director, Center for Pollinators in Energy/ Director, Media & Innovation Lab for Fresh Energy in Minnesota. City staff indicated the ordinance development process was comprehensive and inclusive of stakeholder interests, taking six to nine months.
One significant issue investigated was the effect that solar facilities might have on neighboring properties. City staff reached out to Dorchester County government, which had experience with solar siting. Dorchester’s planning director testified at the hearing on the city’s bill in order to provide insights from the County’s experience. Even though few houses or other buildings are located in the vicinity of the Egypt Road site, the facility would occupy a long stretch of road frontage and drivers would have to pass it on their way to prominent sites such as the Harriet Tubman Underground Railroad State Park and Visitor Center. As a result, standards for berms and/or landscaping were considered important to protect the viewshed.
While citizen input was active for hearings for the County’s solar zoning bill, little occurred at the two hearings on the City’s bill, largely because the Egypt Road site is large and remote, having few neighbors to impact. The applicant took issue with extensive berm requirements, which would require a large amount of fill. As a compromise, the final law allowed extensive tree planting as a substitute for berms.
The extent of City land eligible for solar panels—350 acres—was another important topic of discussion. However, since the Egypt Road site occupies 319 acres, just 30 acres more are left to be potentially developed into solar facilities within the City. In addition, to protect resource land the city’s approach discourages solar sites on forests, prime farmland, and wetlands.
Best Practices Identified by the City of Cambridge:
Require plantings for pollinators (the regulations do not specify what the seed mix has to be, but the proposed seed mix must be approved and the plantings maintained), ample landscaping/visual buffering, flexibility of administration, and limiting consumption of acreage.
Specifics Regarding Zoning Ordinance:
The specifics can be found in the Unified Development Code, City of Cambridge, Maryland1 at choosecambridge.com/DocumentCenter/View/85/Zoning-Ordinance---Updated-July-2017-PDF?bidId=
Article 4 Zoning Districts and Allowable Uses
§ 4.2 Districts and Allowable Uses
§ 4.2.3 Standards for Conditional and Special Exception Uses
D. Miscellaneous Uses
Small-Scale Solar Energy Systems (SES) are allowed in all zones.
Medium and Large-Scale SES are permitted in the Resource Conservation Zone by Special Exception.
Community SES are allowed in all zones EXCEPT the Resource Conservation Zone by Special Exception.
Within the Chesapeake Bay Critical Area, Medium, Large, and Community SES are allowed only if they conform to the State’s Critical Area requirements.
A maximum of 350 acres within Cambridge shall be approved for Medium, Large, or Community SES, including solar panels, accessory buildings, and the 75-foot buffer area. “This limitation shall not include off-site facilities required for the connection or transmission of the electricity to the grid.”
Specific Zoning for Small-Scale Solar Energy Systems:
- Requires a building permit and, if ground mounted and visible from a City right-of-way, a landscaping/ screening plan.
- Rooftop Small-Scale SES “shall not extend more than…10 feet above the surface of the roof. Visual analysis and approval required…. The total height of the building or structure, including the solar collection devices, shall comply with the height regulations” of the zoning code.
- Small-Scale SES in residential districts shall be located in side or rear yards. They shall be screened from public view, with a landscape screening plan submitted for ground-mounted units. The screening “shall be maintained in good health.”
- Small-Scale SES “shall comply with required accessory structure setbacks for the parcel size in the zoning district where the project is located.”
Specific Zoning for Medium- and Large-Scale Energy Systems:
- Requires a Category 1 Site Plan, Special Exception, building permit, a landscaping and screening plan, and a decommissioning plan.
- A landscape plan prepared by a licensed landscape architect is required to shield the SES from streets and neighboring properties. “Any trees with a…six inch or greater caliper to be removed shall be shown on the plan set, along with a mitigation plan for their removal with a…two for…one tree replacement ratio with a minimum caliper of…three inches, measured at the DBH [diameter at breast height].”
- A 75’ buffer is required, consisting of “two staggered rows of…six foot tall native evergreen trees…. The buffer shall include evergreen shrubs and a… 10 foot-wide flowering ground cover/ pollinator habitat area with the remaining area planted in native, warm season, low growing grasses/ clovers.” Can be modified by the Board of Appeals.
- “In addition to the evergreen trees, cluster plantings of…native deciduous trees randomly planted to break up the evergreen screen shall be planted with spacing of…50…to…75 feet between clusters.”
- All plantings, excluding trees, shall benefit pollinators; the “[s]eed mixture shall be reviewed and approved by the City in conjunction with State agencies. “Flowering ground cover shall have a minimum of…10 plant species with a minimum of…two flowering seasons in addition to spring.
- “A minimum of…60[%] of the site shall consist of flowering ground cover/pollinator habitat for the panel area, with the remaining portion of the site seeded with native, warm season, low growing grasses/clovers that benefit pollinators.”
County regulations for solar installations can require plantings
that benefit bees, butterflies, and other pollinators.
- A performance bond of 125% of the landscape’s “installed value” is required for 3 years. After a city inspection, the bond will be reduced to 25% for another three years. “The City reserves the right to inspect and require replacement of plant material for the duration of the life of the [SES].”
- A 75’ setback from all property lines is required, although the Planning Commission or Board of Appeals for good cause can extend it to 200’. This addressed a neighbor’s concern regarding the Egypt Road facility.
- A 125% bond for the cost of removing the solar facility must be posted. A solar facility inactive for six months “shall be presumed abandoned” unless the applicant can prove otherwise.
Specific Zoning for Community Solar Energy Systems:
- "Community [SES] require a Category 1 Site Plan, Special Exception, building permit, a landscaping and screening plan, and a decommissioning plan.”
- Community SES shall be screened from public view, with a landscape screening plan submitted for ground-mounted units. The screening “shall be maintained in good health.”
Zoning For All Solar Energy Systems:
- “The applicant shall provide a detailed establishment, maintenance, and monitoring plan for the vegetation. These plans shall include best management practices (BMP) and schedules of inspections.” Invasive species shall be removed.
- The site screening shall minimize glare. A glare analysis, and FAA notification, is needed if the SES will be located within two miles of an airport.
- “Documentation of the site’s soil composition is required for ground mounted projects.”
- “Other site-specific approvals from appropriate federal, State, or local authorities, such as nontidal wetland permits, forest conservation plans, forest preservation plans, and habitat protection plans are also required….”
- “Ground-mounted Solar Energy Systems shall not exceed….16 feet in height.”
- SES “shall…minimize adverse impacts to view sheds of historic sites and scenic corridors; they shall not be located on the State’s scenic byways or on lots that are mostly wooded."
- “Projects that result in significant loss of prime agricultural land or undue impacts to forests, wetlands, other natural resources, or environmentally sensitive areas are strongly discouraged."
- “All projects within the City’s Historic Preservation District are subject to review and approval by the Historic Preservation Commission.”
- “[S]olar panels mounted at least…24 inches above existing grade…shall be subject to a…25 foot setback from perennial and intermittent streams [and] nontidal wetlands….[A]ccess paths, culverts, and roads may cross and/or be constructed within…25 feet of perennial or intermittent streams or nontidal wetlands, provided that such crossings minimize impacts to such features and are authorized by all applicable State and federal agencies.”
- Lighting shall be motion-activated and shielded/pointed downward to prevent light leakage toward the sky or adjacent properties.
- The System applicant shall provide to the City an annual report on power production.
- The applicant shall have a decommissioning plan prepared by a third party. If the SES “has been destroyed or substantially damaged and is not repaired or replaced…the City may direct the applicant to begin the decommissioning process within…60…days.
1 Mayor and City Council Adopted December 8, 2014. Effective January 1, 2015. Updated June 20, 2017, Updated October 30, 2017, Updated June 18, 2018, Updated August 23, 2018, Updated October 19, 2018, Updated March 22, 2019, Updated November 7, 2019