States grapple with renewable energy projects on preserved farmland

By Sara Wyant

© Copyright Agri-Pulse Communications, Inc.



Legislation that would allow siting wind and solar energy projects on small portions of plots designated as preserved farmland moved through the Maryland House of Delegates this week and is now headed to the state Senate, where the chances for passage appear to be good.

The measure, which passed the state House by a 97-33 margin, is the latest in an effort across several states to give landowners the additional economic opportunity that could come from the siting of small-scale renewable energy facilities on land that is otherwise precluded by law from any use other than agriculture.

“It is an issue that many state (farmland preservation) programs are grappling with,” said Jennifer Dempsey, director of American Farmland Trust's (AFT) Farmland Information Center. “It is the newest wave of issues that seem to be sweeping across these programs,” she said, noting that the debates are reminiscent of an older issue that focused on locating cell towers on preserved land.

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“The question most face is: ‘What do you want to allow to support the viability of these (agricultural) operations,” she said. Many programs are looking at limiting the output of any renewable energy projects to just that power that can be used on the farm, or limiting the location sites to no more than 1 percent of the operations land designated as preserved.

New Jersey in 2010 adopted a law similar to the Maryland proposal that sponsors said would allow farmland owners to allow the installation of renewable energy projects to earn extra money and sustain their operations. Oregon's Department of Land Conservation and Development is considering changes to its Farmland Protection Program to allow projects on limited-use land.

In California, the pressure to meet the state mandate of meeting 33 percent of its energy needs with renewable resources is resulting in a number of solar projects being proposed for location on preserved land.

Legislation adopted in January allows a landowner to petition a county to cancel any contract made through the California Land Conservation Act, or “Williamson Act,” which assists counties with support payments to protect agricultural and open space lands by compensating local governments for lost tax revenues. The law also requires renewable energy developers to provide a long-term lease agreement - at least 10-20 years - on any preserved land designated as renewable energy project site.

However, funding for the Williamson Act has been suspended since the beginning of the 2010 fiscal year, making the development of renewable energy facilities on lands that produce limited tax revenues more appealing to local governments - an upsurge in interest that help push the new law through.

The measure adopted keeps the California Farm Bureau, which has opposed any non-agricultural use of preserved farmland, relatively happy because it restricts the conversion to only that farmland which is predominately “marginally productive or physically impaired” for ag use.

But conservationists are not happy with the Maryland legislation and similar efforts in other states.

“When it comes to preserved farmland, I am a fundamentalist,” Andrew McElwaine, president of AFT, told Agri-Pulse. “If the development rights (on farmland) have been retired, that means no development, period.”

McElwaine's sentiment is widely shared among preservation organizations   and many farm groups -who fear that the slightest incursion into the sanctity of preserved farmland could lead to other development that has a footprint larger than solar, wind or biomass facilities.

Farmland preservation programs come at a cost, either in lost property tax revenues resulting from the land's preferred tax status, direct payments to local governments, or in the form of direct payments to landowners to cede their right to use the land for anything other than farming or ranching. In Maryland, taxpayers have paid farmers nearly $700 million since 1980 to preserve close to 300,000 acres on more than 2,100 farms.

The case made by advocates for taxpayer support to preserve farmland is primarily an economic one. They say farms support local economies through job creation, support services and other businesses, and by creating secondary markets such as food processing and distribution. Farm and ranch lands typically generate more in local revenues than they require in local services.

Preservationists say that despite its importance, agricultural land is at risk from development because it tends to be flat, well drained and open. As development encroaches on farmland, it increases the costs and risks of production and it drives up the value of the land beyond the reach of agricultural producers, they warn.

But supporters of renewable energy development on preserved lands continue to cite the need to diversify their income to stay in business and keep the land in agriculture. In Maryland, many operations, such as orchards and nurseries, have yet to recover from the recession and owners say they must find additional revenue streams to stabilize their businesses. A Virginia-based energy firm is reportedly offering one Eastern Shore tree grower a six-figure annual payment for locating wind turbines on a small portion of the grower's land designated as preserved.

Proponents of the Maryland legislation, which includes the Maryland Agriculture Land Preservation Foundation, say the measure is sensitive in its approach to development, restricting owners of preserved land to designate only five acres on which they can locate renewable energy systems. It would also limit the types of renewable energy systems that could be built, and it would require land owners to turn 10 percent of what is earned from the projects back to the state to use to put more farmland into preservation. They also say wind and solar facilities are less intrusive than other developments, and unlike housing projects, can be dismantled and removed, if necessary.

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