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Carroll County Commissioner Joe Vigliotti, Statement on Proposed Moratorium of Community Solar in Agricultural Land


The following statement on Proposed Moratorium of Community Solar in Agricultural Land was provided to the Carroll County Observer from Carroll County Commissioner Joe Vigliotti (District 1):

The moratorium proposed before us is an issue that this Board has approached with the utmost seriousness, for it involves questions of property rights and community integrity, of agriculture and energy, of the environment and economics, and the past and future of our County. And so it is appropriate that time and care have been taken in their consideration.

So given, and with respect for the citizens of the County, the arguments I am about to make will be at length; and they are not to be taken as a negative reflection on anyone who helped to compose the amendment in question, for I know it was crafted with the best of intent, and the best information available at the time; and I, myself, am far, far from perfect.

When Carroll County was gathered and founded in 1837, it was, in part, to ensure that those who lived well beyond the cities of Baltimore and Frederick might have a seat of government and a judiciary closer to home. Farms and small towns were folded into the rural landscape as God made it, and agriculture was central to the County’s existence. It was with great care that our County was established, and that legacy still resonates now – as the debate about community solar developments in agricultural zones has demonstrated.

Since the moratorium was proposed, we have heard from those on all sides of the issue. I am grateful that so many have responded to articulate where they stand, and that most of those who have responded have done so in a respectful way. While some would have us believe that there is some easily identifiable divide, here, there is not. To take one crucial example, we have heard from farmers both for and against the solar development of agricultural land. Only when it comes to developers do we find a distinction, that all of them are in favor.

And some – not all – but some of those developers have attempted to exercise influence through condescension, dismissal, and threats that they will seek greater land allowances through the auspice of the State if this County does not accede to what they want. I do not take well to those developers attempting to bully the citizens of this County.

Clearly, those developers do not understand the community they want to participate in. But I certainly now have a far better sense of those developers.

But the issue at hand – the moratorium – remains, ultimately, rooted in who we are and in our heritage. The Agricultural Preservation Program continues under this Board, understanding the vital importance of agriculture to our way of life. Victor Davis Hanson has identified the family farm as the foundation of Western civilization; and it was in rural Greece in the Seventh Century, BC, that the concept of citizenship came into being.

More than 2,700 years later, across America and in our County, the farm helps to preserve and renew the foundation of our values, for the practical is necessity – our love of God, family, home, neighbors – and of citizenship. It is in American citizenship that we embrace the individual and the community in our way of life.

This explains why, when viewed in the context of agricultural heritage and preservation, and how farming remains the county’s greatest economic share, the debate is this challenging over solar developments. After all, why shouldn’t I be allowed to do anything I want with my farm?

With solar alone, we are not dealing with agriculture. You cannot eat electricity. Though they are described as such, these are not farms or fields. They are solar developments. They are not full of horses, cows, or crops, but will be sprawling collections of machinery that will curtail future use of these places, and will transform the land and the landscape in which they exist. One will feel the impact of a changed place.

The truth is that we have to be prudentially selective about where solar developments may go. Some will charge that this is arbitrary and capricious, but it is not. It is respectful and precise on behalf of those people and areas which will be affected by this. After all, what may suit one location, may not suit another – and this, to a large degree, underscores the importance of zoning.

Now I readily agree that there is a compelling argument to be made for a property owner’s use of his or her own land. And I support the freedoms inherent in property ownership. But freedom, true freedom means responsibility, towards ourselves and towards others. Bearing in mind neighbors, community, designated zoning, and more, limits are necessarily faced. Otherwise, why bother with things like zoning at all? Why not allow a property owner to open up an adult entertainment shop at will?

That is because it will affect others in ways disproportionate enough to infringe on their rights and lives. And because it will also affect the place in which such actions are taken – and will, necessarily, affect the society, culture, and place in which they occur.

The Renaissance architect Leon Battista Alberti adhered to a principle of fittingness – that is, how well does something fit into its surroundings? Is it harmonious beyond mere visual appearance? As philosopher and farmer Roger Scruton has elaborated on fittingness, “It involves a harmony between buildings and people, and between both and the landscape… In short, it is the public aspect of settling, and the visible commitment to a local way of life.”

As Richard White, a professor who has written extensively on environmental history has noted, “Coming to terms with modern work and machines involves both more complicated histories and an examination of how all work… intersects with nature. There are clearly better and worse technologies, but there are no technologies that remove us from nature.”

These aren’t fences, barns, or horse pastures, which are fitting and complementary of an agricultural zone – but massive, postmodern metallic forms which defy the beauty of the landscape and the natural world in which they are constructed. This is recognized by those both for and against the developments, else there would be no discussion about shielding them.

And while I agree that farmers and farms are not mere props or a background vista, the beauty of the place – and the view – certainly do matter. If views did not matter, why would real estate agents emphasize them? If zoning did not matter, why would this factor into choices made about where people wish to live? After all, if I move into a residential area, I can reasonably expect the view from my window to be of other houses. If I move into a rural area, I can reasonably expect the view from my window to be of farms and the natural world.

And I think we must also consider, in an era when farmers are looked down upon by so many, that the residents of this County, some of whom are not farmers themselves, should be among the first to defend the agrarian life; that, of all the places they could choose to live, they chose the rural land.

If we are serious about being community-oriented, environmentally-minded, and agriculturally-supportive, we need to be careful and precise about where a solar development will be constructed. That includes consideration of that balance between the people and the place, and between individual rights and community integrity, for America’s liberty is, as George Washington explained, one of ordered liberty – of “complementary values” and “competing interests”, as it has been described – that my freedom ends where yours begins.

And the competing interests and complementary values of ordered liberty are central to this solar amendment and moratorium. While some supporters of the amendment as it stands contend that the amendment is well-written, and very restrictive to these ends, it is not. To wit:

  • Section H talks about plant spread to surrounding farmland, but not surrounding property in general. All surrounding property, natural or maintained, must be protected.
  • Section I speaks of, but does not define, adequate fencing. And should the fencing itself also be screened depending on the kind of fencing that is utilized?
  • Section K speaks of a different maximum height for solar developments in agricultural land than in other zoned areas, but does not explain the reasoning or further restrictions. If the intent as described is to screen a solar development, why make it more difficult to do so by increasing the height maximum?
  • Section M speaks of removal of foundations of solar panels, but says nothing about needing to remove any subterranean, or underground components of a development.

In a more general sense:

  1. There is no section pertaining to definitions.
  2. How does the County actually determine what an inactive solar development is? How are the 180 days of inactivity actually measured or determined?  Importantly, there is nothing in this amendment which requires funds being escrowed for the decommissioning of sites decades from now.
  3. When a site is decommissioned, where does everything go? To the County landfill? If so, who pays for this?
  4. Does the tax rate on solar land change due to the obvious change in land use despite the land being agriculturally-zoned?
  5. With respect to blocking one’s view of the solar development, how is this determined? Our County is not a flat county. I may not see a screened solar development standing next to it, but I certainly may see it from the next hill.
  6. There is nothing in here about the specific potential renewal process of a solar development, the years permitted per lease, the number of times a lease may be renewed, or even whether it all has to go back to Planning and Zoning.
  7. There is nothing about the total number of solar developments permissible in the County. The Farm Bureau has advised that 19,000 acres of land are potentially affected by the amendment.
  8. There is nothing about the density of solar panels in a development.
  9. There is nothing about the allowable distance between solar developments themselves as a matter of proximity.
  10. While other sections contain recourse for nuisance to neighbors, this amendment does not.
  11. While other sections contain wording on glare, this section does not.
  12. There is nothing in this amendment, or elsewhere in the solar sections, which speaks about construction process standards (such as mitigating grading-runoff, etc.)
  13. There is nothing about the kind or quality of the solar panel materials that must be used (being free from PFAS, cadmium, lead, hydrochloric acid, etc.). Having heard from someone who actually deals with water for a living during the public hearing, these are very serious considerations.
  14. And given environmental concerns, shouldn’t developers contribute to a County-monitored fund in perpetuity to mitigate any future potential environmental issues? Just this past year, four solar developers were fined by the EPA for polluting waterways with runoff. There is nothing in this amendment which ensures accountability or responsibility. How many technologies and practices, once considered safe, have since been demonstrated to be otherwise?
  15. Should we require regular testing of solar developments for contamination?
  16. There is nothing in here about a standard or uniform emergency shutoff configuration easily identifiable and usable by First Responders.
  17. Should we require certain conditions which protect property owners from developers and their activities? What if prices or the nature of farming changes, and a landowner wants to end their contract early? Do we require this as an option in the contract-making process?
  18. Should we require agrivoltaics, the dual-use of a solar development, if occurring in agricultural land? That is to say, do we require that the land being utilized by solar must also have a simultaneous and active agricultural use, whether for shade-resistant crops, animal grazing, apiaries, or otherwise? After all, what is the use in preserving land for agriculture, if the land is not used for agriculture?  Otherwise, it would be like arguing for the charted course and integrity of a ship, then selling off pieces of the hull while at sea.

I know that there have been other legitimate concerns which have been raised, including things like setbacks and soil class types. If you think I’m being too particular, consider the sum of pages relating to renewable energy in a neighboring county exceeds 130 pages. Ours, on solar, comes out to about four individual pages.

I would argue our amendment is not restrictive enough – or protective enough – of even the landowners. If the developers are willing to threaten a County, they will not think twice about threatening a landowner.

I do understand and agree with the call from some farmers who are looking for ways to diversify what they do in order to increase their income. Farmers are facing especially difficult times. I do believe that we, as a County, can be friendlier or more receptive about what is permissible under agricultural zoning on an agricultural basis – such as the preparation of food or promotion of agritourism, as two recent examples. We might also reexamine the size of parcels permitted into agricultural preservation, perhaps lowering the threshold. And maybe, overall, we can find a middle way forward. I agree with the calls for a task force or a committee to consider this in-depth.

Additionally, the argument that the amendment is already a settled policy, a settled law, does not hold. There have been numerous laws, regulations, and restrictions that have been reformed, repealed, or replaced through American history. It is not only that a law exists that matters, but the integrity of that law which counts. This is why the U.S. Constitution remains as viable a force as ever, but why those laws like the Sedition Acts of 1798 and 1918 no longer exist.

Solar on this scale is new to the County, and we owe it to all our residents, those against and for the solar amendment in part or in whole, to do our best to try to get this right while we have the time to do it. As nearly everyone in favor of the moratorium has explained, and as I believe, it isn’t a question of solar, but where and how it goes. If we lose agriculture, if we lose those farms and meadows, we don’t merely lose the land – we lose the people who tended to it. With their absence, a way of life is conceded. The values of those who love and were rooted in the land disappear, and with them, a part of ourselves. And so our society, and our culture, are necessarily changed. This is among the reasons why agricultural preservation holds such importance for us.

But this isn’t some Luddite Romanticism or Quixotean quest which attempts to conjure sentimental nostalgia, either for a long-gone age or a place which never was. Rather, it is a practical consideration of something which stands poised to change our County, forever. We must think of far-off days that will not belong to us.

Make no mistake about this, either: this is not unfounded fear of change. Having adapted to tractors, tractor navigation, and agriculture software, the farmers here do not oppose change – they oppose impractical changes. If they are going to change something, they want to know it works, for their work does not enjoy the luxury or physical distance of mistakes. And this obtains for any resident who has a vested interest in what occurs in his or her community. Again, this is not an argument against solar, but where and how it goes.

Now, should the developers sue us, that will only prove where their interests actually lie. Those who are rooting for the State to supersede local authority should reconsider, for the State is no steadfast ally of local farmers. And for those who would remind me that the days of local control of solar are numbered, and that this effort is ultimately useless, perhaps that may well be – but that makes it all the more important that we say something now, and make some effort on behalf of all of our citizens despite what may come. It matters all that much that we never fall silent, for as we know here, home is everything.

So I will cast my vote for the moratorium with the promise of a better path forward. Thank you.

You can listen to the statement from March 9th here:

From The Observer:

The vote on March 9th on the agenda item: “Discussion, Deliberation and Possible Adoption of Ordinance – Community Solar” was 5 to 0 in favor of the six month Moratorium of Community Solar in Agricultural Land.

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