Specialist urges landowners to be cautious

Senior Editor

(Editor’s Note: This is the third in a planned series of reports on utility-scale solar projects in the region. Other reports in the series not only cover other solar developments in the Mid-Atlantic but also will detail cautions landowners should take if they are approached for a lease on their lands.)

(Feb. 7, 2017) Farmers on the Eastern Shore of Maryland are being approached by solar power companies to lease big chunks of their land for utility-scale solar power installations.
Even though it may sound inviting to some, they need to be cautious, says Paul Goeringer, Extension ag law specialist at the University of Maryland.
A primary consideration is whether solar power development is allowed if the land is in a land preservation program.  In many cases, the terms of the easement preserving the farmland may not authorize large-scale solar power development. 
The Maryland Agricultural Land Preservation Foundation, responding to a surge of solar activity, over last summer put into place final regulations to allow limited commercial alternative energy development on MALPF-protected farmland. 
Essentially, those regulations by Maryland’s official land preservation agency prohibit utility-scale solar power development on land under a MALPF easement.
Under the new regulations, to get MALPF’s approval for commercial alternative energy development, Goeringer said the project needs to conform to all applicable federal, state, and local laws and all zoning requirements. 
Here’s the key. The proposed facility must also occupy either five acres or no more than five percent, whichever is less, of the easement area. That restriction, by itself, essentially says “no” to any utility-scale development.
The proposed facility must also hold a contiguous area and not multiple spots in the easement area. The landowner and the owner of the facility must agree that MALPF inspectors may enter the area during regular business hours.
The project owner or the landowner must sign a bond for MALPF to ensure the removal of equipment and the land restored at the end of the project.
MALPF officials have advised landowners with farmland preserved under an MALPF easement, to “reach out to MALPF to fully understand how this approval process will work before signing any agreement.”
The Eastern Shore Land Conservancy is also in the business of guarding farmland on the east side of the Chesapeake Bay.
It outlined its stance on large-scale solar installations in a statement regarding the so-called Mills Branch solar project in Kent County, which was recently rejected by the Maryland Public Utilities Commission. Apex solar power officials heading up the project said the company would not appeal.
ESCL’s statement said, “ESLC believes local energy generation, especially renewables, is a critical component to the Eastern Shore’s future economic resilience and prosperity. However, the proposed Mills Branch project was of a scale never before considered on the Eastern Shore and lacked the local public review process necessary to balance our need for renewable energy generation with the impacts of a project this scale. For these reasons and the potential impact on conserved lands, ESLC opposed the Mills Branch solar energy project.
“The Eastern Shore has the potential to be the undisputed leader in Maryland renewables, but it can’t be done without thoughtfully balancing the expense to resources like tillable acreage, wildlife habitat, rural vistas and more. 
“ESLC would like to use the attention surrounding the Mills Branch project as a call to action. This region needs to develop a strategy to say ‘yes’ to renewables, but on its own terms.”