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
Jurisdiction: Kent County
Type: Small Scale and Utility-Scale
Zoning Used: All zones were affected in one way or another, allowing wind and solar systems as permitted uses outright, accessory uses, or special exceptions.
Process: Renewable Energy Task Force created by the county commissioners.
Description of Process:
In 2008, Kent County faced a controversial cell tower proposal in the unincorporated town of Still Pond. Also, in 2008, the State of Maryland adopted the EmPOWER Maryland Energy Efficiency Act, which sought to reduce energy consumption by 15%, and required that 20% of energy provided by power companies come from clean sources. In 2009, the state created the Generating Clean Horizons initiative, through which the state, county and local governments, and universities could team up to purchase large amounts of renewable energy and thereby spur the development of new facilities. The increasing interest in renewable energy developments created both opportunities and challenges. In addition, Kent County residents wanted solar power for personal use, and requests for utility-scale facilities started appearing. A comprehensive approach was needed.
In response to these concerns and issues, the Kent County Commissioners created a Renewable Energy Task Force in March 2010 to study the potential uses of renewable energy in the county and recommend appropriate policies and ordinance amendments.
Specifically, the Task Force was charged with the following:
- Objectively evaluate the application of each type of renewable energy technology at the residential, commercial, and utility scale for their benefits to the county and potential effects on the community and the environment;
- Identify infrastructure requirements, including those needed for transmission and the conversion from energy to electricity;
- Advise the County Commissioners on the applicability of each type of technology to Kent County and recommend potential alternative energy technology that may be applicable to reduce county building or other structure energy use;
- Propose appropriate policy changes and ordinance amendments; and
- Review current technology incentives.1
The Renewable Energy Task Force consisted of representatives of county government, local communities, and an array of environmental organizations, but not representatives from the renewable energy industry.2
The Task Force met for a year and recommended statutory changes that would protect Kent County’s cultural heritage, rural aesthetics, colonial landscapes, and agricultural land. The Task Force wrote the text amendments and sent them to the planning commission, which held a public hearing. Next, the text amendments were considered by the county commissioners. The commission adopted a version very similar to the draft the Task Force presented.
Most residents had few concerns about the new requirements, especially long-time county residents, who once faced the possibility of a nuclear plant and trash incinerator in the county. Other residents believed the zoning requirements were too restrictive and did not allow enough solar facilities.
Although representatives from the renewable power industry spoke to the Task Force, they were not included on it. The industry had submitted text amendments of their own, which indicated that they were not satisfied with Kent County’s zoning changes. To date, the industry’s text amendments have not been adopted.
One utility-scale solar facility has been completed under the new zoning requirements, as a primary use, in 2019. It operates in an industrial district along Route 301, near the town of Massey. After reviewing the initial proposal, the planning commission requested additional landscaping. The public appears to be satisfied with the project, since the only complaint came from a next-door neighbor who objected to the dust raised during construction.
Best Practices Identified by Kent County:
The county is satisfied with the zoning ordinance text amendments since it achieved the desired results as proposed by the Task Force. The code makes it easy for individuals to construct solar or wind facilities while limiting utility-scale facilities to commercial and industrial zones.
The role of the Planning Commission in creating the Renewable Energy Task Force worked very well. The Task Force also did a thorough job, even completing the drafting of text amendments for consideration by the County Commissioners.
Specifics Regarding Zoning Ordinance:
In 2011, Kent County adopted extensive amendments to its land use statute as it pertains to solar and wind.
- Utility-scale solar systems are a permitted use outright in Industrial and Employment Center zones, and do not have a size limit.
- Small solar energy systems were added as accessory uses to 16 zones. These changes clarify the process for building small systems for personal or residential use.
- Special exceptions in 17 zones accommodate larger systems, or small systems in more densely populated zones. The Special Exception for utility scale solar in the Commercial, Crossroads Commercial, and Commercial Critical Area zones does not have a size limit.
- Utility-scale solar systems are allowed as a Special Exception in the Agricultural and Resource Conservation District zones, but they are limited to five acres, and adjacent parcels cannot aggregate panels in an area that exceeds five acres.
The process in Kent County did not make use of the PPRP Smart DG+ screening tool to delimit an area for siting solar projects. In addition, decommissioning procedures for power facilities were not included in the revised land use article.
In 2016, the Task Force reconvened to reconsider the siting of utility-scale solar facilities on agricultural land. They suggested less restrictive zoning requirements, but the recommendations did not advance further than the Planning Commission.
At this time, Kent County is not seeing much interest in the installation of solar fields on commercial rooftops, parking lots, and brownfields, but homeowners are interested in residential systems. Farmers can install solar installations for their own use, on a maximum of five acres, and some have taken advantage of this provision.
1 Report of the Kent County Renewable Energy Task Force, Established 9 March 2010, page 3. kentcounty.com/images/pdf/planning/RETF_WHITE_PAPER_Final.pdf.
2 The Task Force included the following stakeholders: a village representative, two community representatives, the Director and Environmental Planner from Kent County Planning, Housing, and Zoning, and one representative from the following: Historic Preservation Commission, Washington College Center for Environment & Society, Agricultural Advisory Commission, Planning Commission, Soil & Water Conservation District, Sassafras River Association, and Upper Eastern Shore Tributary Strategies Team.