Category Archives: environment

Barve Bashes the Council on Solar

By Adam Pagnucco.

Last month, Delegate Kumar Barve, chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee, warned the county council not to pass a version of a zoning text amendment that effectively prevented most solar development in the agricultural reserve. Now that they have ignored his warning and passed it anyway, Barve has authored a blistering opinion piece in the Washington Post condemning the majority of the council for “sabotaging affordable clean energy.” Barve also wrote that the council’s action has spawned imitators, possibly leading to “a chain reaction of solar prohibitions.”

The state delegation and county electeds have long had ups and downs, sometimes cooperating and sometimes grumbling. Usually the grumbling does not appear in public, but there are exceptions like Delegate Eric Luedtke’s op-ed criticizing county officials for ignoring upcounty. Barve’s piece is harsher and, coming from one of the top environmental policy makers in the state, may ultimately be more consequential.

That said, the council has made its decision on solar in the agricultural reserve. What’s next? Obviously, an election is coming. The most important single change to the original zoning text amendment was one restricting placement of solar panels on certain soil types. That change passed on a 6-3 vote. Three council members are term limited: two who voted for the change (Council Members Craig Rice and Nancy Navarro) and one who voted against it (Hans Riemer). So assuming that all of the remaining incumbents return, the tally would be 4-2 in favor of the soil restriction.

The next council will have 11 members because of the passage of Question C last year. If 4 of the 5 new council members favor solar in the ag reserve, they could undo the soil restriction on a 6-5 vote. Could that happen? It’s possible but it becomes more likely if the Sierra Club – which supported the original zoning text amendment – conditions its endorsement in the next election on whether candidates favor liberalizing solar restrictions. If that occurs, solar proponents have a shot at getting their way. If not, MoCo’s restrictions have a greater chance of becoming permanent unless Barve and the General Assembly find a way to preempt them.

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Top Seventh State Stories, February 2021

By Adam Pagnucco.

These were the top stories on Seventh State in February ranked by page views.

1. Raskin Chief of Staff Writes About Attack on the Capitol
2. MoCo Solar Power Company Throws in the Towel
3. Is MoCo Ready to Reimagine the Police?
4. Once Again, Who’s the Boss?
5. State Legislators to Hogan: Send MoCo More Vaccines
6. Brandy’s Bonkers Bucks
7. What Climate Emergency?
8. Brandy Brooks is Back
9. Barve Warns Council on Solar
10. What Happened to White Flint?

The post about the Capitol insurrection by Julie Tagen, who is Congressman Jamie Raskin’s Chief of Staff, is the first one to lead our list two months in a row. After a strong run in January, this article took off again starting February 9 when Raskin told this story to the U.S. Senate in his opening argument at the impeachment trial. It remains one of the most riveting items we have ever posted on Seventh State.

The article about White Flint is the first item to appear on our list three months in a row. This one won’t go away. It’s about more than politics; it’s about whether our county can build appealing new communities that can compete with the rest of the region. There is a real hunger for that in MoCo and it will resume prominence after the COVID pandemic winds down.

Then there are the stories about solar in the agricultural reserve. They reveal a split not just among politicians but also inside the county’s environmental community. Some see environmentalism as concerned with the preservation of nature. Others see environmentalism’s biggest priority as preventing climate change from making Earth inhospitable to humans. Both sides are right, of course, but in the case of solar in the ag reserve, their short-term prescriptions for action were at odds. This is not the first sign of an enviro split in MoCo. The Sierra Club’s endorsement of Roger Berliner over Marc Elrich in the 2018 county executive primary was extremely controversial. We may be headed for more internal conflicts in the environmental community in the future.

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Riemer vs Elrich on Solar in the Ag Reserve

By Adam Pagnucco.

The extent to which solar panels should be allowed in the agricultural reserve was a big issue this week. Council Member Hans Riemer, one of the lead sponsors of legislation to do so, and County Executive Marc Elrich, who favors less capacity than Riemer, both issued statements this week which we reprint below. For background, you can refer to Bethesda Beat’s account of the county council’s decision on the issue, my column on its context and Delegate Kumar Barve’s letter to the council about the legislation.

First, let’s consider what Riemer had to say in his blast email of February 24.

*****

Why I Voted No

When I introduced the “farm + solar” zoning change with Council President Tom Hucker back in January 2020, my goal was to build a cornerstone of Montgomery County’s climate action policy.

By allowing less than 2% of the land in the County zoned “Agricultural Reserve” (which is itself one-third of all land in the County) to be used for privately funded community solar projects, the proposal would have generated enough clean energy to power more than 50,000 homes, while continuing agricultural practices on that land.

Regrettably, with opposition fueled by the County Executive, a majority of Councilmembers adopted two amendments to ZTA 20-01 that are so restrictive that the proposal may result in very little if any solar.

As a result, I voted “no,” because I am concerned that rather than a small step forward for Montgomery County, it may be a large step backward for Maryland. Consider these words from Chesapeake Climate Action Network, which along with the Sierra Club and Poolesville Green strongly supported the original plan:

Clean energy has to go somewhere. If liberal Montgomery County can’t reach a sensible compromise policy, imagine the push back from Republican county and state elected leaders who think climate change is a hoax anyway.

We should be leading. Our county has adopted climate goals. We declared a “climate emergency.” We have conducted studies on how to reduce our carbon footprint. At the end of the day though, the only way to make a difference is to make policy changes, and changes will require disruption to the status quo.

Yes, many incumbent farmers and preservationists were opposed, due to impacts on their business models (shifting from commodity crops to agrivoltaics, solar grazing, or pollinator-friendly habitats on that portion of land) or a perceived threat that allowing solar is a step to allowing residential or other development (just a fear, not a reality).

There are reasonable questions about how we transition to a clean energy economy. One idea I offered was to use tax revenue from solar arrays to support additional agricultural preservation, grants to help small farmers purchase or lease land, and funds to support agrivoltaic and solar grazing. Nevertheless, under this plan, farming would continue, the Reserve would endure. Frankly not much would seem all that different but we would have made a huge impact on our carbon emissions.

Other choices that we have before us are far more costly, either financially to taxpayers or to businesses or homeowners. This is one of a very few ideas that does not actually require County funds — in fact it would generate millions in new county revenue that could be devoted to the climate agenda while creating new clean energy and solar grazing jobs.

Some of the important points to remember about this proposal include:

  1. Solar fields would have been limited each to 2MW in power generation, about 10-15 acres per property maximum (in contrast to portrayals of “industrial solar”)
  2. Total acreage allowed would have been limited to 1,800 out of the 100,000+ acre reserve, which itself is one-third of all land in the County
  3. Grazing sheep on pollinator-friendly plants beneath the arrays was encouraged and could have been incentivized with new tax revenue from the solar arrays
  4. Solar grazing and agrivoltaics would increase local food production in the Reserve — less than 1% of the land in the Agricultural Reserve today is farmed for fruits and vegetables destined for local farmers markets
  5. Rooftop and parking lot solar, while important, is significantly more expensive than ground-mounted or terrestrial solar fields, which is why you don’t see enough of it
  6. There is nothing more important to saving the climate than creating cheap clean energy
  7. By only allowing “community solar” installations on the land, energy companies taking advantage of the program would be required to offer discounted energy subscriptions to low income residents

The Council majority acknowledged that they are not sure if their proposal will result in new solar projects and that we should return to the topic in two years to evaluate progress.

In that respect, while I am disappointed in the final vote, I am also grateful that we have now opened up the possibility of farms providing community solar (which was previously entirely prohibited; now is mostly prohibited) and I am committed to growing that potential in the future as a necessary public benefit from our Agricultural Reserve.

In the meantime, while it is clear that the original proposal has overwhelming support from voters, we need to build grassroots support, and in particular, we need to educate residents about the primacy of clean energy and the social justice value of community solar.

To be continued.

Sincerely,
Hans

*****

Now let’s consider Elrich’s statement, issued on February 25.

*****

Dear Friends:

The Montgomery County Council on Tuesday voted to adopt changes to the County zoning code that will provide opportunities for locating solar collection systems in the Agricultural Reserve. I extend my thanks to the seven Councilmembers who found common ground that allows for community solar projects while protecting our agricultural resources.

Zoning Text Amendment 20-01 strikes the right balance between the need for renewable energy and the equally important need to protect the Agricultural Reserve’s unique and vital contributions to local food production, clean water and carbon sequestration.

The new standards allow solar collection systems generating up to two megawatts of power as a conditional use on the lesser productive soils in the Ag Reserve. Other provisions protect streams, wetlands, steep slopes greater than 15 percent and forests.

In addition, the areas under the arrays must be used for farming or agricultural purposes. Examples include pollinator-friendly designation, agrivoltaic plantings or crops suitable for grazing farm animals. Another significant change affects property owners who install smaller solar systems to serve their individual energy needs, increasing the amount of on-site energy they can produce from 120 to 200 percent.

The County Council also mandated a formal review process to assess the outcomes of these changes in two years. This will give us the opportunity to observe whether and how this experiment will work, especially regarding the emerging field of agrivoltaics, which focuses on the co-development of land for both solar power and agriculture.

In the meantime, my administration continues to prioritize increased solar energy production in innovative ways. For example, we are currently planning the installation of a six-megawatt array on the County-owned site of an old landfill. We also are looking at ways to incentivize solar projects on existing parking lots and buildings elsewhere throughout the County. These types of projects are essential to our efforts to address climate change through clean energy solutions.

I deeply appreciate the work of all those involved in this year-long review, most especially members of, and advocates for, the farming community and Executive Department staff members. The Ag Reserve, established by prescient County leaders more than 40 years ago, is recognized as a national model of farmland and open space preservation. Its importance and significance grow with each passing year as we witness the effects of climate change on our food and water supplies. The legislation adopted by County Council embodies the need for protecting this resource while allowing us to see whether agriculture and solar systems can co-exist in a mutually beneficial way in Montgomery County.

Marc Elrich
County Executive

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What Climate Emergency?

By Adam Pagnucco.

On December 9, 2017, the Montgomery County Council passed a resolution declaring a “climate emergency.” The resolution stated, “Climate change will cause an increase in water and food shortages, civil unrest, state failure, civil war and terrorism throughout the world, with no region or nation being immune to these effects, including Montgomery County.” It went on to state, “We must together implement a massive emergency global mobilization effort to successfully eliminate greenhouse gas emissions and remove excess carbon from the atmosphere. Each of us has the moral duty to safeguard the planet for future generations.”

A climate emergency. Merriam-Webster defines an emergency as “an unforeseen combination of circumstances or the resulting state that calls for immediate action” or “an urgent need for assistance or relief.” Consider the following three matters and then decide if the county is acting like there is a climate “emergency.”

Closing the Dickerson Incinerator

In December 2016, the county’s incinerator in Dickerson was the site of an enormous, 85-foot tall trash fire that required hundreds of fire fighters to put out. It later emerged that the plant had 105 days of unscheduled outages between March and October of 2016, forcing the county to divert tens of thousands of tons of trash. Council Member Marc Elrich, one of the lead sponsors of the council’s climate emergency resolution, promised to close the incinerator when he was running for county executive. In January 2018, he tweeted, “And I’m preparing legislation to create a plan to transition us away from the incinerator so we can close it when our contract expires in 2022.”

But there were two problems. First, outgoing County Executive Ike Leggett extended the incinerator contract with its private sector operator right before leaving office. However, the contract allows the county to buy its way out. The second and bigger problem was that neither Elrich nor the county had any alternative plan for what to do with the waste if the incinerator was closed. Elrich told Bethesda Beat four months after taking office: “I’m gonna phase it out when I can phase it out. But people have to remember that I didn’t say I was gonna shut it down until we had a plan for dealing with the waste… So I’m not shutting it down until we figure out how we’re gonna figure out how we’re gonna increase the amount of recycling.” Elrich later told the Washington Post, “If I can’t do it by 2022, then 2026 gives me four more years… I’m not going to do a bad solution in ’22 just to say I did it in ’22. I would rather be on a path to a good solution. If it’s a year or two or three years later, I can live with it. As long as it’s a better solution than what we’re doing now.”

All of this happened almost two years ago. The incinerator still operates today. As for the promised legislation in 2018 to transition away from the incinerator, it was never introduced.

Climate Planning

In response to the council’s climate emergency resolution, a workgroup of county government, Park and Planning and MCPS collaborated on a 55-page report in 2018 containing more than 100 policy options for a “decarbonized future.” That was just the beginning.

Next, Elrich convened a 222-member transition team to prepare a comprehensive report to guide his new administration. The environmental team was comprised of one captain, two facilitators, three recorders and 25 members. They analyzed greenhouse gas emissions, recycling and code enforcement and issued 16 specific recommendations. (One of them was to “eliminate incineration.”)

The transition team’s report did not lead to a flood of legislation but rather to five climate workgroups with 150 people. The county hired a consultant to assist them and budgeted $400,000 in both FY20 and FY21 to pay for “climate change planning.” The workgroups issued 850 recommendations in a 96-page report. (Once again, one of the recommendations was to “eliminate incineration.”)

This was followed by a 235-page climate action plan released in December. One of Elrich’s staffers told Maryland Matters, “It is the shared responsibility of the county council and the county executive to take the next steps and come up with legislative packages based on the recommended climate actions.”

As of this writing, no legislation has been introduced to advance the recommendations of the climate action plan since its publication. Compare this record to that of former Council Member Roger Berliner, who back in 2014 introduced 11 bills and 2 zoning text amendments on the environment ON THE SAME DAY. (All but two bills passed.) But the county did rename its Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee as the Climate, Energy and Air Quality Advisory Committee, so there is that.

Solar Energy in the Agricultural Reserve

Solar energy is a frequent topic of the county’s environmental planning. The executive’s transition team recommended, “Electrify everything and exclusively use solar and wind energy.” The climate workgroups recommended, “Evaluate environmental and ecological impact of using land in the agricultural reserve for solar” and “Establish demonstration projects to co-locate PV solar with agricultural production (such as grazing) and pollinator meadows.” The climate action plan mentions the word “solar” 184 times although it takes no position as to whether it should be installed in the agricultural reserve. The report does call for a transition to 100% renewable production of electricity by 2030, of which solar is one component. Presumably, enough space must be designated for solar use to achieve the scale sufficient to meet that goal.

In January 2020, Council Members Hans Riemer and Tom Hucker introduced Zoning Text Amendment 20-01, which allowed solar panels on a maximum of 1,800 acres in the 101,500-acre agricultural reserve. This set off a firestorm, resulting in four committee sessions, two full council sessions, three different news releases concerning “additional stakeholder engagement,” a town hall event, a poll showing 69% support for the legislation among MoCo voters and countless blast emails from feuding environmental groups on opposite sides of the issue. All of this took a year before the council’s votes to add amendments on soil restrictions and review requirements prompted one solar generator to terminate its projects in the county and caused the solar industry to push for the legislation’s defeat. In the end, if the zoning text amendment passes in its current form, it seems likely that no solar panels will be installed in the reserve unless the council members go up there with tool boxes and do it themselves.

There is an upside. The county won’t be getting the 300 megawatts of solar power allowed by the original version of the above zoning text amendment but it will be installing 6 megawatts of solar power at a Gaithersburg landfill.

Climate emergency? What climate emergency?

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Barve Warns Council on Solar

By Adam Pagnucco.

Delegate Kumar Barve has sent the county council a letter saying that he is “deeply disturbed” by their actions on a zoning text amendment allowing solar panels in the agricultural reserve. He characterizes two amendments to the measure approved by the council as making solar development in the reserve “essentially impossible.” Finally, he asks the council to withdraw the amended legislation and start over for fear that other counties may try to limit solar energy too.

Let’s remember that Barve is no ordinary delegate. He is the chair of the House Environment and Transportation Committee and a long-time member of House leadership. That makes him one of the most powerful officials in Annapolis, especially on issues within the jurisdiction of his committee (like solar energy). The state government can and does preempt local governments when state officials believe such action is warranted. Let the council beware.

Barve’s letter to the council is reprinted below.

*****

February 7, 2021

Re: Functional 98% Ban of Affordable Solar Energy in Montgomery County

To the President and Members of the Montgomery County Council:

Living in Montgomery County all my life, I recognize the extraordinary work our County Council is capable of doing including your efforts now during the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the Montgomery County Council is recognized for its tremendous past contributions in dealing with an equally dangerous threat to our livelihoods and health: global warming.

I write now because, as a state legislative leader on environmental issues, I am deeply disturbed by the Council’s recent actions impacting the development of solar energy. Specifically, the Council’s decision to restrict solar building on Class 2 soil in the Agricultural Reserve and to impose Conditional Use review to the solar Zoning Text Amendment have made the development of community solar essentially impossible.

Look to the immediate and predictably negative response of solar developers to this action – including businesses in our own county – which make clear that those restrictive conditions effectively shut down any possibility of building solar projects on open land in the Agricultural Reserve.

To fully understand the economic impact of your potential action, realize that energy generated from solar panels placed in open fields (terrestrial) are the only truly affordable source of renewable energy. In fact, a recent analysis by the firm Lazard Ltd. shows that based on price, only terrestrial-based solar panels beats the cost of fossil fuel generation. Rooftop solar can be 2 ½ to 5 times more expensive than terrestrial solar.

The other negative impact of this proposed amendment would be to significantly reduce capacity for small-scale solar projects under the Legislature’s Community Solar program. These are the projects that give low- and middle-class families affordable access to clean energy.

Further, from my statewide perspective, I am seriously concerned that should the currently amended zoning bill pass, the precedent set by our County in taking such a regressive step will have negative repercussions on clean-energy development/equity in the future, across Maryland and the region. Indeed, if a local government of Montgomery County’s stature and progressive reputation can turn its back on affordable community solar, other Maryland counties might likely follow suit.

I respectfully ask the Council to withdraw what has become a potentially harmful bill. Instead, I ask you to compromise by leveraging our progressive knowledge base and practical experience. In this way, the County can create a synergistic solution that advances clean energy, protects agriculture, creates jobs and improves our overall wellbeing. In short, the Council can provide the type of creative solution that we have come to expect from Maryland’s leading jurisdiction.

Sincerely,

Kumar Barve

Note: Along with his letter, Barve supplied the following data table from Lazard Ltd., an international asset management firm, showing that ground-based solar energy is more price competitive with nuclear and fossil energy than rooftop solar.

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Solar Industry Blasts “De Facto Moratorium” on Solar in Ag Reserve

By Adam Pagnucco.

In the wake of the county council’s changes to a zoning text amendment that would allow solar panels in the agricultural reserve, the solar industry is now urging the council to defeat the legislation. The industry claims that two amendments adding soil restrictions and additional review requirements are tantamount to a “de facto moratorium” on solar in the reserve. One solar generator based in Kensington has already abandoned its projects in MoCo and industry representatives allege that others are also pulling out.

The letter to the council from the Coalition for Community Solar Access and the Chesapeake Solar and Storage Association is reprinted below.

*****

Montgomery County Council
100 Maryland Avenue, 6th Floor
Rockville, MD 20850
RE: ZTA 20-01

Dear President Hucker and Councilmembers,

The Coalition for Community Solar Access (CCSA) and Chesapeake Solar and Storage Association (CHESSA), formerly MDV-SEIA, thank the Montgomery County Council for its year-long consideration of the Zoning Text Amendment 20-01 (ZTA 20-01) and the opportunity to offer input on behalf of the solar energy industry. We appreciate the time and attention the Council has dedicated to this important issue and recognize that you sought to find balance in your approaches with the best of intentions. However, at this time and due to the amendments that were adopted by the Council on January 26, 2021, particularly related to restrictions on Class 2 soils and new conditional use requirements, CCSA and CHESSA regrettably submit this letter in strong opposition of the ZTA 20-01 as it will prevent reasonable solar development in Montgomery County.

The trade associations and our member companies presented information stating that either soil restrictions beyond Class 1 soils or conditional use would prevent reasonable development of community solar and AgNEM facilities in Montgomery County. As you know, the Maryland Community Solar Pilot Program seeks to provide clean, renewable energy to Maryland residents who do not otherwise have access to solar electricity, particularly with respect to low- and moderate-income families.

While we understand many on the Council believe that these two amendments were a “compromise,” seeking to find a “middle ground,” these two amendments unfortunately undermine the very purpose of the ZTA – which we believed was to allow solar development in a very limited portion of the AR Zone. Small scale solar energy development, such as Community Solar and AgNEM, is a complicated undertaking that entails many federal, state, and local hurdles. ZTA 20-01 as introduced was a relatively modest bill that included several safeguards and an aggregate cap. Over the course of the year-long process, we conceded to several additional amendments related to land conservation as well as other ancillary agricultural benefit requirements and safeguards. While most of the amendments prior to the January 26th decisions created additional cost and burdens on solar development, our members were willing to meet such challenges to promote renewable energy development in the County and work hand in hand with the agricultural industry.

However, the adoption of the class II soil restriction not only reduces the available acreage under the 2% cap by 70% but it eliminates development overall because it doesn’t take into account solar siting provisions required for construction. When these considerations are applied, as required by developers, the soil restriction in fact prevents ground-mounted solar development in the county. Furthermore, the extensive delays caused by the conditional use provisions and the inability to fast track the process will inevitably place community solar facilities in jeopardy of being fined for an extension and removal from the community solar pilot program. The increased costs associated with the court proceedings, duplicative planning board processes and subjectivity for approval, decrease the cost savings for community solar subscribers, defeating the intent of providing affordable clean energy to customers who have been unable to access it through other means. These are simply risks the industry cannot take.

Not only will the two amendments to ZTA 20-01 – Class 2 soil restrictions and conditional use – prevent Montgomery County from achieving its robust clean energy goals, these amendments, if the ZTA is enacted, will introduce considerable risk to the state’s community solar pilot program and reduce the customer benefits received by Maryland residents as a whole, including low- and moderate -income families. The recent actions taken by the Council place a de facto moratorium on solar development in the AR Zone and prevent Montgomery County from participating in the remaining three years of the Maryland Community Solar Pilot Program.

As a result of the votes taken on January 26th, several of our members have already started to cancel current land option leases with landowners and farmers in Montgomery County. Others have begun cancelling contracts with local vendors and consultants, including employment opportunities in the County. We have also heard from other subscriber organizations that have begun to cancel subscriber acquisition for Montgomery County residents to participate in community solar programs.

While we are always willing to find workable solutions to our climate challenges with the County, we respectfully but strongly urge that ZTA 20-01 be defeated in its current posture. Thank you for your work and we hope we can count on your support to vote no.

Sincerely,
Leslie Elder, Mid-Atlantic Director
Coalition for Community Solar Access

David Murray, Executive Director
Chesapeake Solar and Storage Association

CCSA is a national coalition of businesses and nonprofits working together to implement best practices for all community solar markets. Our mission is to empower all Maryland households and businesses that seek home grown energy sources through community solar. We work with customers, utilities, local stakeholders, allies and policymakers to develop and implement best practices that ensure community solar programs provide a win-win-win solution. The solution begins with the customer and the land owners. Our members are solar industry leaders and are engaged at every step of development, ensuring these best practices are not theoretical but are applied and practiced. We have members headquartered in Maryland, including some members headquartered in Montgomery County, and others who were interested in investing here.

The Chesapeake Solar & Storage Association (CHESSA), formerly MDV-SEIA, is a regional trade association representing over 10,000 solar installers, developers, manufacturers, and other solar workers in Maryland, Virginia and the District of Columbia. It is the recognized state affiliate of the Solar Energy Industries Association.

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Top Seventh State Stories, January 2021

By Adam Pagnucco.

These were the top stories on Seventh State in January ranked by page views.

1. Raskin Chief of Staff Writes About Attack on the Capitol
2. Are Maryland Vaccine Deliveries Fair?
3. State to Counties: Vaccinate Private School Staff or Else
4. What Happened to White Flint?
5. MoCo Solar Power Company Throws in the Towel
6. How Does MoCo’s Vaccination Rate Compare to the Rest of Maryland?
7. State Legislators Call on Harris to Resign
8. Political Awards 2020
9. MoCo’s Hero
10. Mizeur Threatens to Run Against Harris

This is a pretty concise list of what has been on the minds of MoCo’s political community: the attack on the Capitol, Jamie Raskin, vaccines and the movement to throw out Andy Harris. The story on the solar zoning text amendment reflects a split among environmentalists that is bound to resurface on future issues. As for White Flint, which was also the top story in December, that article demonstrates a major challenge that MoCo will face as it emerges from the pandemic: how to rebuild its economy and not lose any more ground to the rest of the region. Economic competitiveness was a big issue before COVID and it will return to that pedestal as the next election approaches.

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MoCo Solar Power Company Throws in the Towel

By Adam Pagnucco.

Stefano Ratti, President of Chaberton Energy, has told the county council that his firm has given up its plans to proceed with solar energy projects in Montgomery County. Chaberton Energy is based in Kensington and operates throughout the mid-Atlantic region.

Ratti blasted two amendments made by the council on Tuesday to a pending zoning text amendment on solar projects in the agricultural reserve. Together, they would effectively ban solar panels in 99% of the reserve’s acreage and add potentially time-consuming review requirements on the remaining acres. Council Members Gabe Albornoz, Andrew Friedson, Sidney Katz, Nancy Navarro and Craig Rice voted for both amendments while Will Jawando voted only for the amendment on review requirements. Council Members Hans Riemer, Evan Glass and Tom Hucker voted against both.

Banning solar panels on Class I and Class II soils would effectively allow them on only 1,324 acres of the agricultural reserve’s 101,541 acres.

Ratti’s email to the council, sent yesterday, is reprinted below.

*****

From: Stefano Ratti
Date: Wednesday, January 27, 2021 at 11:25 AM
Subject: Solar Energy in the County

Councilmembers Friedson, Albornoz, Navarro, Rice, and Katz,

I am grateful for the work you do on the County Council, but, with yesterday’s vote on excluding Class II soils (and, to a lesser extent, changing the use to conditional), you have now killed the possibility of doing solar energy in any meaningful way in Montgomery County. In the middle of a pandemic you killed an opportunity to create local jobs, do a lot of good for the environment, bring revenue to the County (which could have been used for the benefit of the Ag Reserve), help local landowners, and save money on electricity bills for county residents (particularly low-income residents, under the state community solar program). You also voted against 70% of the residents of Montgomery County, who demand action on environmental issues. With one single vote.

Here is what the next few days look like for me and my Montgomery County solar team:

We are going to rescind the five land options we have with our Montgomery County landowners (they are, like everything else in the County, on Class II soil – we have canvassed the county for one year and we have been unable to find one single viable non-class II property)

We are going to meet with our landowners and explain that, unfortunately, no, the county doesn’t want you to have a solar farm

We are going to tell our investors that we didn’t clear the Montgomery County ZTA milestone; they will not release the development funds that were earmarked for Montgomery County projects

We also have to tell our investors that we lost 30% of our proposed projects and we will have to figure out how to keep our business viable, which our staff and their families rely on; yes, we are a Montgomery County business, but, no, we are de facto blocked from operating in our own county

We will call our headhunters and tell them to stop looking for staff

We are also going to terminate contracts with our local contractors; we are going to call them and say, that, unfortunately, no solar project is going to happen in our county (whether it’s us or other solar companies)

All that this vote achieves is to “preserve” a handful of acres of land that is currently producing feed for animal consumption, or sitting fallow. Along with a couple of farming jobs, which could have been easily re-purposed to establish and maintain agricultural activities on the solar installations, while we are missing out on the economic benefits for the farming community*. Running us out of the county appeases a vocal minority of NIMBY activists, who don’t mind keeping fossil fuel plants open, as long as they are not in their backyard, but rather in disadvantaged communities who don’t get to have their voices heard.

I am not proud to be a Montgomery County resident today.

Councilmembers Riemer and Hucker, a heartfelt thank you for all the effort you have put in sponsoring this bill; you are probably just as disappointed as we are, but know that your genuine efforts to do good for the environment and help the local economy are not going unappreciated; and doing the right thing always has a value on its own. Councilmember Glass and Jawando: thank you for your vote on Class II soil and recognizing that excluding Class II soil makes it impossible to do anything. And we urge you to vote against passing the ZTA version with the class II soil exclusion.

Stefano Ratti

* See for example report published just today from Rocky Mountain Institute: https://rmi.org/insight/seeds-of-opportunity/ “Seed of Opportunity – How Rural America Is Reaping Economic Development Benefits from the Growth of Renewables”

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Hearing from the Candidates on the Stormwater CIP Budget

I am pleased to present this guest post by Sylvia S. Tognetti:

This question was sent to all 60 candidates running for various slots on the County Council. These include five incumbents who were given the option to state their views but not expected to do so given that their positions are known from their public statements and their Council vote. Of the non-incumbents, 10 responded and 45 have not. If more responses are received they will be added, up until election day.

Responses, in the order received:

Dalbin Osorio

I am not in favor of the current manner in which our stormwater program is run. It is more a reactive program than what is necessary, especially as we try to combat the extreme changes in our climate. I would vote to overhaul the entire program, beginning with the hiring of one independent contractor and a partnership with the local universities that would allow for interns to be utilized as a way to create a pipeline between students and facets of county government that they may be interested in. I would mandate that this contractor work with a board appointed by the County’s leading environmentalists, to ensure that the job is done appropriately and that the contractor is not skimping on quality work just to meet costs. We are not meeting the guidelines set forward, nor are we honoring deadlines set to meet certain benchmarks, and I believe this is unacceptable. I would push to increase the capital budget so we can better be prepared for incoming storms.

Seth Grimes

Montgomery County should maintain its long-standing approach to stormwater management, but get serious about progress, perhaps especially redoubling work with owners of properties with expanses of impervious surface and ensuring that county investment lives up to our commitments.

Hans Riemer

Building and maintaining stormwater infrastructure is one of our highest environmental priorities. I was one of 5 votes to support our traditional approach to building this infrastructure, and as Council President I am working to protect our program to the fullest extent.

Ben Shnider

Sound stormwater management policy is essential for protecting our environment and safeguarding our community’s health. We must not prematurely cancel projects and rush ahead with a new approach to stormwater management that lacks clarity. The simple majority of five Councilmembers who supported the Transportation, Infrastructure, Energy & Environment (T&E) Committee’s recommendation (that retained the current stormwater management approach until all the applicable stakeholders are brought together to formulate recommendations that may enhance the program’s future performance) was more than prudent. The County Executive’s proposal, put forth as the Council was reviewing the entire budget across all County agencies, was unduly hasty. Essentially, the County Executive expected the Council to rubber-stamp his new approach to an important, inherently complicated program, at a time when neither Councilmembers, environmental stakeholders, let alone the public at-large were in a position to fully consider the implications. The T&E Committee’s recommendation, which a simple majority of Councilmembers wisely supported, allows sufficient time for careful review and collaboration among stakeholders between now and the early Fall, when the County Council may fully evaluate any recommendations that may result.

For these reasons, I believe that the County Executive’s line-item veto was unwarranted. His action, along with the refusal (to date) of my Councilmember to support the T&E Committee’s balanced approach, has only resulted in a dangerous stalemate. I hope that all Councilmembers will vote swiftly to override the County Executive’s veto and instead, unequivocally, embark upon a course that places safety, the environment and transparency first.

Meredith Wellington

Do you support the existing or a new approach to managing stormwater? My top environment priorities are reducing greenhouse gases and improving stormwater management. I support the Council’s recommendation to continue with the current program and conduct a thorough review to identify ways to improve and reduce costs for implementation. I believe the County’s current program can be greatly improved. After reviewing the CIP budget, I have concerns that Water Quality Protection Charge funds are being used in a manner for which they were not intended. I will also collect more information on the effectiveness of restoring streams before runoff from higher elevations is controlled. I would also like to review, with DEP and our State delegation, how stormwater management is measured to ‘count’ toward the MS4 permit requirements. Are we treating the most serious runoff challenges or the most accessible and cheapest? How are our streams and waterways improving after treatment? I support green street and similar “green” rather than “gray” stormwater management infrastructure, but want to be assured that systems are right sized for the square footage treated. There have been some challenges to green street installation that I would like to understand better.

In what direction do you think Montgomery County should take its stormwater program? I support continued emphasis on green stormwater management infrastructure. I think there needs to be more education and dialogue around installations so resident embrace green streets. I would like to find a way for shade trees to co-exist with and enhance engineered stormwater management. Our climate is changing, we are experiencing more heavy storms. Our stream valleys are fed by many underground springs and seeps. When building infill development, erecting additions, or other similar activities, we should adopt a “no harm” policy. For example, a new home that creates more impervious surface and installs stormwater management solutions should not negatively impact neighboring structures. Finally, I would like to see greater accountability from WSSC for both their construction work (I have seen workers hose sediment into the local creek) and consent decree compliance.

How can we best prepare for future stormwater needs? We can best prepare for future stormwater needs by reconsidering flood plain maps and identifying current flood patterns; accelerate work to add more green stormwater management to high impervious surface areas like our CBDs and parking lots; incentivize green roofs (double duty to lower carbon emission), rain gardens, tree planting, rain barrels, etc. Funding is also a challenge. The WQPC collections are significant; let’s use that money more effectively and for the purpose legislated. I think DEP has a good education and public awareness program, but it should grow. I would like to create partnerships with property owners and developers to build functioning ecosystems in dense areas as both a teaching tool and stormwater management device. I would also like to see a simpler, more aggressive Tree Montgomery program. I would like to review and strengthen legislation restricting building on steep slopes with highly erodible soils, and create greater incentives for preserving interior forests.

Tom Hucker

I have been involved in this issue for quite a while, including spending four years as the sponsor of Maryland’s HB987, the landmark 2012 statewide Maryland Stormwater Management – Watershed Protection and Restoration Program.

As the Council’s Lead Member for the Environment, I have consistently opposed the proposed new approach to manage stormwater through a very large (approximately $46 million), murky multi-year contract to a single unnamed general contractor.

Like all of us, I would like to see DEP achieving greater efficiencies in its stormwater contracting methods and exceed the goals in its new permit. But such a large, abrupt change that would realistically lock us in for several years before we even know our new state MS4 permit requirements is not the way to do it. In no other area of policy do we create a program before we know what the requirements of the program will be.

Instead, I have consistently advocated for a much smaller, pilot approach in the short term as well as restarting all of the good work that DEP has been doing. I want us to complete dozens of suspended and cancelled projects that we’ve already sunk significant taxpayer dollars into design and pre-construction planning in the short term.

Last but certainly not least, we need more oversight, transparency and accountability. It’s critical that the County establish a meaningful environmental advisory group with a variety of environmental experts like the Stormwater Partners represented on it. I’d like this group to begin convening this summer and hopefully exist for several years with the charge of advising DEP, DPS, the Council and the rest of our government on best practices and innovative ideas on stormwater management going forward. Recent events in Ellicott City show us we need to keep our stormwater efforts moving forward, not backward.

Will Jawando

I support the Council’s decision to pause the County Executive’s effort to move the storm water management program over to a private contractor. I support continuing the storm water management program as currently implemented, specifically work through the 44 delayed projects and review the 26 canceled projects. We should be committed to adhering to the county’s green infrastructure program, and meet at least 60 percent of its MS4 permit requirement using green infrastructure to manage storm water. If we have any changes to the current storm water management program, those changes should be made in full transparency, and in partnership and collaboration with stakeholders, including our environmental nonprofits, private citizens and others. Changes to streamline and improve management are acceptable, but only if they can be proven to continue to help the county meet its watershed restoration targets.

Tim Willard

We need to improve our stormwater management system. The County has been under a consent decree since January for committing numerous violations of its stormwater permit. A major part of the problem is that the County Government has raided the Water Quality Protection Charge for use in the operating budget rather than spending it on physical stormwater projects as was intended. This fund should be dedicated to its original purpose to improve our stormwater management. I oppose the effort to privatize stormwater management projects. While there are some benefits, privatization raises issues of quality control, loss of creativity in designing projects, and lack of communication with home owners near the projects. Organizations interested in stormwater management were kept in the dark while the privatization proposal was being developed which adds to the concern. Restoring funding that was meant to be used for stormwater management is a better solution than privatizing the process.

Evan Glass

I support the existing stormwater management system.

Michele Riley

I support the T&E Committee’s recommendation to move forward with existing projects now. We should not let this important work get hung up over what appears to be a difference of opinion regarding procurement process.

Gabe Albornoz

As a County, we must take actions to address our stormwater management issues so that streams remain clean and our watersheds are healthy. Healthy watersheds make for clean drinking water. We must first address the most degraded watersheds that are most at risk. I agree with our environmental community that 60% of our stormwater projects should be green infrastructure. It is vital that the work under the current State MS4 permit allows for a collaborative review of the program by the environmental community so that the most effective improvements can be made in the next permit.

Bill Conway

The Council exercised its proper authority to withhold approval of the budget for the proposal by Council Executive Leggett, which would have shifted the capital budget for stormwater projects to a single 5-year DBM contract. This proposal represented a substantial change in how the stormwater program is implemented that would be difficult to reverse and for which efficiency and cost-effectiveness are unknown. Also unknown are what the requirements will be under the next stormwater permit that this proposal was presumably intended to address. The Council decision to continue the suspended projects under the current contracting method does not mean the stormwater program cannot or should not be improved. The Council called for an open and transparent review of the program which would provide an opportunity for the County to consider different options and provide input to MDE on more cost-effective and innovative green infrastructure approaches that could be approved for crediting in the next permit cycle. This process would also allow for a more informed decision to be made when future permit obligations are known.

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Candidate Views on Leggett’s Line-Item Veto of the Stormwater CIP Budget

Today, I am pleased to present a guest post by Sylvia S. Tognetti:

In the aftermath of back to back storm events and flooding, and with 60 candidates in the primary race for various slots on the County Council, it seemed like it would be useful to find out their views on Leggett’s  line-item veto of the 5-4 majority decision by the Council pertaining to the stormwater CIP budget. ANS, on behalf also of Potomac Conservancy, Friends of Sligo Creek, Conservation Montgomery and the Montgomery Countryside Alliance, sent all of them a single question:

The County Executive issued a line-item veto of a majority Council decision on the stormwater CIP budget. In what direction do you think Montgomery County should take its stormwater program? How can we best prepare for future stormwater needs?

We received 17 responses of which three were from incumbents whose views have already been expressed through their public statements and Council vote – so their response was not expected. That leaves 41 who did not reply and are not incumbents and whose views are unknown.

A few candidates who have not responded let me know in person that, being the week before early voting, this question came at a bad time. I hear you! We would have much preferred to see this radical proposal by the Executive come before the Council with time to properly review it and consider alternatives in an open process, which is what we advocated for, and the Council called for in its majority decision. This is the situation faced now by existing Council members, and we thank those who took the time to understand and thoughtfully consider this complicated issue in this busy time. We can only wonder what those who did not respond would do if elected and presented with a radical proposal in the context of a budget decision, just before a primary election.

This is the first time a line-item veto has been used in 25 years. In its decision, the Council rejected a radical change in how stormwater projects are managed that was proposed by the County Executive. In the proposed new approach, stormwater capital projects would have been bundled and outsourced to a single contractor in a single, 5-year design-build-maintenance contract to treat stormwater runoff from 526 acres of impervious surfaces. This is intended to meet obligations under the next 5-year stormwater permit, which are not yet known, because we will not see a draft of the next permit until this Fall. Instead the Council accepted the recommendation of the Transportation & Environment Committee, to continue the 44 suspended projects – many well into the design phase and ready for construction, under the current approach, and called for an open and transparent public review of the program as a basis for improvements. Six votes are needed to override this veto and continue moving the county’s stormwater program forward.

This proposal came in addition to a $243 million cut in the 6-year stormwater CIP budget, which was accepted by the Council. This was based on an assumption that obligations under the next stormwater permit will be to retrofit only 5% of impervious surfaces that are not already treated to the Maximum Extent Practicable, instead of the 20% required under the current permit that will be completed this year. Although this percentage remains to be determined by MDE, which issues these permits, they have publicly stated it is likely to be at least 10%.

A key concern is whether the County will adhere to its new green infrastructure policy, in which it made a commitment to meet at least 60% of its MS4 permit requirement using green infrastructure to manage stormwater. The policy also committed to evaluating the costs and multiple environmental social and economic benefits of these projects, compared with single-purpose gray infrastructure as a basis for project selection.

Many of these projects would be necessary regardless of permit obligations and can reduce the costs of maintaining gray infrastructure. For example, when stormwater erodes urban streams, it erodes and batters sewer pipes, causing Sanitary Sewer Overflows (SSOs). By enabling water to infiltrate into soil, green infrastructure slows down runoff, and helps to protect gray infrastructure, as well as reduce flooding and provide many other well-known benefits associated with green spaces. As discussed at a Water Forum held last December, stormwater runoff from up-county watersheds, that enter the Potomac upstream from drinking water intakes, also increases the cost of water treatment, which is why WSSC is planning to spend $83 million on a mid-river submerged channel intake at the Potomac Water Filtration Plant, and an additional $157 million to upgrade the plant to handle the overloading of sediment. In other words, costs not paid through the Water Quality Protection Charge would just reappear on our water bills, in the form of higher costs to treat drinking water and maintain pipes.

Candidate responses can be viewed on the ANS blog. Some are more detailed than others and present some good ideas, that could be considered if there were an open and transparent review of the program and alternative approaches. Only three favor the Executive’s single contractor approach, with some modifications.

More background information on the issue can be found in this Maryland Sierra Club post, and letter to Executive Leggett from leaders of the stormwater Partners Network, representing the Potomac Conservancy, the Audubon Naturalist Society, Conservation Montgomery, Friends of Sligo Creek, the Montgomery Countryside Alliance and the Maryland Sierra Club.

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