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Council hears debate on tasting rooms, solar arrays in ag zones

The Frederick News-Post — Danielle E. Gaines The Frederick News-Post, Md.

April 19--The concerns of rural residents were front and center at the Frederick County Council meeting Tuesday night.

Residents concerned about large solar facilities in agricultural zones and noise from farm tasting rooms came out in large numbers to oppose those bills, while other speakers said new uses of farmland are what's in store for the future.

The County Council recently amended the tasting room bill to allow outdoor music after owners of breweries, distilleries and wineries said entertainment is necessary to bring in customers. The bill to establish rules for solar facilities has been debated among county leaders since 2015, after the county saw a surge in applications for large solar arrays.

The council heard public comment on the bills Tuesday, but does not, as a practice, take any formal action on the same evening as public hearings.

Tasting room tango

County Executive Jan Gardner (D) introduced the legislation to remove barriers and make it easier for farms to apply to operate tasting rooms for their wineries, breweries and distilleries.

The primary opposition to the bill on Tuesday came from residents of the county's agricultural zones who are concerned that amplified music at nearby farms will disrupt their homes and neighborhoods.

"I just don't think it's tight enough," Woodsboro resident Rose Woodsmall said about the bill to allow outdoor music. She lives near a farm that previously operated as a wedding venue and said the noise interfered with her weekends at home.

"It just ruins your life," she said.

Loosening the restrictions in one area could set a bad precedent, she told the council.

The original bill limited amplified music to indoor spaces. Unamplified music would be permitted outdoors, but subject to review and approval by the county's zoning administrator, the original bill stated.

As amended, the county's zoning administrator would consider whether to allow outdoor amplified music and define permitted hours as part of the zoning certificate attached to an application for a tasting room. The approvals would be made on a case-by-case review of individual properties.

The council voted 4-3 on the amendment to allow outdoor amplified music earlier this month.

Tom Barse, who runs Milkhouse Brewery on his Mount Airy farm, was among the supporters of the craft brewing industry who turned out to urge an amendment to the bill to allow outdoor amplified music to help draw in and entertain customers. He said becoming the state's first farm brewery helped preserve his farm.

"The brewery has allowed me to properly mind my fields, fertilize my fields, improve my sheep flock. I would not have been able to do that without the farm brewery on my farm. This bill will help new businesses," Barse said.

Robert Ramsburg, president of the Frederick County Farm Bureau, said the organization supports the tasting rooms. While they aren't to his taste, "the tasting rooms and the vineyards, that's the new agriculture in Frederick County," he said.

"Whether we like it or not, it's here to stay," Ramsburg said.

The county boasts a dozen farm winery and brewery tasting rooms, according to a report submitted by Steven Horn, the county's planning director. Since 2010, the county has approved nine new applications for tasting rooms at wineries and breweries.

Eight other wineries and breweries are expected to add tasting rooms to their operations in the near future, according to Horn's report.

Aside from the music issue, the bill lets those seeking to open tasting rooms smaller than 1,500 square feet bypass the requisite approval from the Frederick County Planning Commission under the proposed legislation.

Site plans for tasting rooms larger than 1,500 square feet would still need the Planning Commission to sign off.

Tasting rooms of any size would have to apply for building permits and meet health and safety standards.

The bill also expands zoning provisions to add farm distilleries and distillery tasting rooms as permitted uses in the county's agricultural and resource conservation zones.

Solar arrays

The country vistas were at issue in a bill that would set out rules for where commercial-scale solar facilities can be placed in the county.

While currently allowed in industrial areas, some farmers want to install solar fields, while some neighbors say the shiny solar panels will disrupt the natural scenery.

Councilwoman M.C. Keegan-Ayer, D-District 3, said the bill that came to the public hearing after a year and a half of work to address concerns from those who have testified at past council meetings.

The proposed bill creates a floating zone that can be applied to agricultural properties from 10 to 750 acres. Solar panels can cover only 10 percent of the tillable acres of the parcel or multiple contiguous parcels, up to 75 acres.

The bill also prevents commercial solar development on land with prime farmland soils as identified by the U.S. Department of Agriculture's soil survey of Frederick County.

"We think we have honed it into a much better bill this time around," Keegan-Ayer said.

Much of the discussion on Tuesday revolved around solar projects that were already under development in the county before a moratorium on such projects was put in place by Gardner and before the council started considering bills to address their placement.

Several residents who live near a proposed 170-acre solar array outside of Woodsboro said the proposed 20-megawatt facility will have a negative effect on property values and take away from the agricultural surroundings. They asked the council not to consider any special exception or "grandfathering" clause to allow the project outside of the requirements in the new bill.

But the developers of that project, Charlottesville, Virginia-based Coronal Energy and Noel Manalo, an attorney representing the proposed 55-acre Baker Point project in Creagerstown, said the council should consider grandfathering language because the projects were under development before the bill was introduced.

Ramsburg, who opposed a previous solar array bill, said the Farm Bureau supports the current bill because it represents a good compromise and is "as close as we're ever going to get."

Follow Danielle E. Gaines on Twitter: @danielleegaines.


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