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The New Jersey Senate has taken a key step toward curbing solar energy development on the state’s best farmland.

Under a bill approved Tuesday by the Environment and Energy Committee, utility-scale solar would not be allowed on preserved farmland, prime agricultural soils or soils of statewide importance.

Solar developers could seek a state waiver of that rule, but solar could never occupy more than 5% of the unpreserved land with top-quality soil.

The bill has undergone extensive debate and revision over nearly a year as lawmakers try to balance renewable energy growth with the protection of New Jersey’s scarce farmland.

“It may be a Goldilocks bill. Nobody is happy with it,” said Sen. Bob Smith, the bill’s sponsor and chairman of the Environment and Energy Committee.

The New Jersey Farm Bureau supports the 5% maximum on high-value soils.

“It does allow for a reasonable use of agricultural lands for solar without opening up all of them in a free-market, destroy-all-the-land kind of way,” Ed Wengryn, a Farm Bureau staffer, told the committee.

Tom Gilbert, who directs energy policy work at the New Jersey Conservation Foundation, proposed lowering the cap to 1%. As written, he said, the bill would put over 8,000 acres at risk.

“Do we really want that amount of solar on our best soils in the areas that the state has said we need to maintain for long-term ag viability?” he said.

Utility-scale solar could actually help return to production some good farmland that is lying fallow, said Lyle Rawlings, president of the Mid-Atlantic Solar & Storage Industries Association.

If the panels are sited in a way that allows reasonably productive crop farming in between, farmers could afford to begin farming that land again, and it’s unlikely that the land would be converted to warehouses or condos, Rawlings said.

Among the nonagricultural provisions, the bill is designed to ensure that state solar incentives are used to develop projects in New Jersey rather than other states.

Several solar industry speakers sought unsuccessfully to replace competitive bids with fixed prices for developing solar on brownfields and landfills, which are considered more desirable sites than farmland.

The bill now goes to the Appropriations Committee.

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