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Maryland’s highest court rules state can trump counties in deciding where solar, wind projects can go

Maryland’s highest court has affirmed that state utility regulators have the power to trump the objections of county governments to solar and wind energy projects, appearing to settle an issue that has stalled renewable energy development in rural parts of the state.

The Court of Appeals unanimously ruled that under state law, the Public Service Commission is “the ultimate decision-maker” in approving power plant projects.

“Under the plain language of the statute, local government is a significant participant in the process, and local planning and zoning concerns are important in the PSC approval process,” Judge Brynja M. Booth wrote in an opinion handed down Monday. “However, the ultimate decision-maker is the PSC, not the local government or local zoning board.”

County governments have raised concern in recent years when the PSC has approved renewable energy projects that residents fear would be an eyesore or disrupt agricultural economies in rural areas. Some, including Anne Arundel and Baltimore counties, have imposed short-term moratoriums on such development in recent years.

Renewable energy advocates have said the local conflicts have slowed development of solar and wind power across the state. A Maryland law passed this year and enacted without Gov. Larry Hogan’s signature requires the state to get half its energy from renewable sources by 2030.

The ruling cited state law setting a broad state mandate to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, as well as failed proposals in the General Assembly that would have transferred more authority over the energy projects to local governments.

PSC officials were “pleased” with the ruling, spokeswoman Tori Leonard said.

“It affirms the commission’s authority in siting generation and underscores the due consideration given by the commission to local zoning ordinances,” she said.

Baltimore County officials are reviewing the ruling, said T.J. Smith, a spokesman for County Executive Johnny Olszewski. Smith said the county “will work within the confines of the ruling as we move forward with plans.”

Leslie Knapp, legal and policy counsel for the Maryland Association of Counties, called the decision disappointing. The group representing local governments across the state supported legislation the General Assembly approved in 2017 requiring the state to take local comprehensive plans and zoning regulations into account when reviewing large solar and wind projects, and Knapp said he “wouldn’t be surprised” to see similar proposals in the wake of the court ruling.

The state’s authority over power projects “creates a great deal of uncertainty” for local governments, Knapp said.

The case under review concerned a solar project for which a developer sought a special zoning exemption in Washington County in 2015. Neighbors took the matter to Washington County Circuit Court, and the developer argued the PSC authority’s should supersede that of local zoning officials.