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.
Jurisdiction: Frederick County
Type: Utility-Scale, Undeveloped Land
Zoning Used: Floating Zone
Approximately six years ago, Frederick County created legislation to address the issue of regulating solar energy systems. The impetus for the zoning update came from the large number of applications for solar energy facilities, some of them for hundreds of acres, in Frederick’s Priority Preservation Area (PPA) and other areas of prime agricultural soil. The stream of applications came in response to public concerns and an upcoming deadline on federal tax credits, which were later extended. The agricultural district at the time was also being considered for other commercial activities, including breweries, wineries and tasting rooms, medical marijuana, etc.
The County Executive ordered a moratorium on solar applications not already approved by the Board of Appeals. The president of the County Council and the legal staff drafted the zoning regulations. Public input came during the County Council’s public hearing.
Farmers, including the Agricultural Business Council and the Farm Bureau, lined up on both sides of the zoning proposal, the main objection being that it was too restrictive. Representatives of the solar industry also found the new regulations too restrictive. As a result, the first draft of the statute was revised. Historic preservation advocates endorsed the prohibition on locating solar facilities on the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area on either side of Route 15. The general public generally has not been interested until they see a notice of a solar proposal in their neighborhood and then they have registered their opposition.
As for solar installations on other types of land uses, solar panels have not been installed in parking lots, except for a small installation at Mount St. Mary’s University.
If the existing zoning is revised, the drafting would involve a variety of interests to prevent the bill from being tabled by the County Council after a public hearing. The goal would be to have consensus before getting to the public hearing; the potential for this to occur is in workshops prior to moving the text amendment forward.
Currently, the County Council must approve a solar facility use by designating a floating zone and the specifics of the development are then processed through the site plan approval at the Planning Commission.
Restrictions on the use of prime soils; a development limit of 10% on individual properties; prohibition on solar panels in Rural Legacy Areas, Priority Preservation Areas, or on land under easement; a two-mile buffer from the centerline of the right-of-way of U.S. Route 15 in the Journey Through Hallowed Ground National Heritage Area.
Zoning for solar collection facilities in Frederick County was contained in Bill #17-07, which became effective on July 15, 2017.
Accessory Solar Facilities Allowed in All Zoning Districts:
A “Solar Facility, Accessory is a permitted use in all zoning districts” and a “Solar Facility, Community Energy Generating System, is an accessory use in all zoning districts and the facility may be located on a different parcel of land than that of the subscribers…" [emphasis added].1
Commercial Solar Facilities Allowed as Principal Use Only in Industrial Districts:
Commercial Solar facilities are allowed as principal permitted use subject to site development plan approval in the Limited Industrial (LI) District and General Industrial (GI) District.2
In a densely populated state such as Maryland, land is in demand for many reasons…including the production of food and fiber for Marylanders.
Commercial Solar Facilities Allowed on Rural Land as a Floating Zone:3
The major stipulations in the ordinance regarding a floating zone for commercial solar facilities on rural land include the following:
Local zoning often allows home solar systems by right.
1 These two provisions can be found in Part I: Frederick County Code, Chapter 1-19 Zoning, Article VIII: Specific Use Regulations, Division 2: Accessory Uses—205.4: Solar Facility, accessory and 2.5.5: Solar facility, community energy generating system, respectively.
2 The information in this section’s bullet points comes from Part I: Frederick County Code, Chapter 1-19 Zoning, Article VI: District Regulations, Division 1: Design Requirements and Modifications; and Article VIII: Specific Use Regulations, Division 4: Permitted Uses.
3 The zoning provisions in this section can be found in Part I: Frederick County Code, Chapter 1-19 Zoning, Article X: Optional Methods of Development, Division 7: Solar Facility, Commercial Floating Zone District
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