County Commissioners Approve Solar Energy Bill

SNOW HILL — After months of preparations, Worcester’s proposed Solar Energy Bill finally reached the point Tuesday to be officially open for public comment.

At a public hearing run by the County Commissioners, local residents had the opportunity to discuss the potential legislature. Special attention was paid to two specific aspects of the bill — stormwater management and the necessity of screening.

“I do understand people’s concerns with the panels,” said Development Review and Permitting Director Ed Tudor in reference to the possibility of making screening mandatory for solar panels over a certain size.

The main argument for the screening was a worry that the large panels might not be aesthetically pleasing and could tarnish the look of a neighborhood, at least in the opinion of some.

However, Tudor pointed out that forcing homeowners to screen panels from view ran the risk of diminishing how much light those panels could absorb as well as discouraging people to begin switching to more environmentally friendly systems.

Additionally, Tudor questioned why solar panels would require screening when a structure of similar size, such as a shed, would not.

Commissioner Madison Bunting agreed with Tudor about the negative impact screening might have on the panels, warning that it could “defeat the purpose”.

“I think that to promote good energy, we will have to make them [panels] visible,” Commissioner Louise Gulyas said.

The lone supporter of requiring screening was Commission President Bud Church, who worried that it was unfair to neighbors to leave larger groups of panels unscreened, as it could alter the aesthetics of a neighborhood. However, in light of the rest of the commission’s hesitancy toward mandatory screening, Church did not press the issue.

Besides the debate over mandatory screening, the other major unknown in the policy was in regards to stormwater management. There was a general concern amongst the commission about what kind of impact panels could cause in regards to runoff as well as a question of what steps would have to be taken to combat any possible erosion.

“It should be very simple,” said Robert Shockley, the review authority for stormwater management.

Shockley explained that strict stormwater regulations only kicked in if construction impacts over 5,000 square feet. Because residential solar panels would not likely ever reach that point, homeowners wishing to install the devices would be allowed to do so with only minor grading and changes to their yards.

“You can address stormwater with the vegetation under them [the panels],” said Tudor.

Once it was the public’s turn to weigh in on the issue, a consensus was quickly formed. Amongst the half-dozen or so members of the public that spoke up, all of them requested that the plan be implemented as soon as possible.

“We’re really eager to move forward,” said James Kurtz, a resident of Worcester County.

The arguments against the current draft of the bill were minor, with a few questioning the strict language.

“Worcester County is already overburdened with regulations,” said resident Jack Ward, urging the commission to loosen the codes regarding small and medium sized solar panel installations.

The commissioners expressed empathy, but stood by the need for solid regulations, voting unanimously to approve the solar energy bill as emergency legislation, allowing it to go into effect much faster than usual.