Let’s Talk About the Evans Solar Issue


No matter how long that sun has been around, the subject of harnessing  it at residential usage level or at business level is something that’s fairly new to our community. There have been a number of discussions on social media regarding the Town of Evans position on allowing solar energy “farms” to set up shop here in our fair town – along with a lot of unnecessary misinformation, worry and fear of increased taxes, land grabs, ugly structures popping up all over our beautiful community, etc.

In trying to keep this as neutral and informative as possible, the Evangola Daily Post will attempt to outline some pertinent information for the town’s residents, so that each of us can make our own decisions about this important subject with some clarity.

After having attended the open town hearing on January 19,2017, some much-needed discussion began to clear up what seemed to be a rather difficult subject to understand.  Let us first and foremost, take a look at what is already in play and on the table in simple terms.

Let’s begin with a New York State law that is called “Home Rule”, which simply says that each community in New York State has the right to make its own local laws and write its own local zoning codes, and other pilots (negotiated contracts) and other guidelines as the town sees fit to meet its individual and unique needs and challenges.

A large solar panel farm - Can you see it in your neighborhood?

A large solar panel farm – Can you see it in your neighborhood?

There is, therefore, the right for the town to create a “moratorium” to any of the local laws that come under this Home Rule.  A moratorium is a temporary prohibition of an activity – such as the moratorium currently in place against the building of any solar energy (or other alternative energy) farms in the Town of Evans.

Now, on Wednesday, December 21, 2016, our Town Board adopted  the Standardized Residential Solar Permit Process for the Town of Evans.  This came about because the town wants its citizens to benefit from what New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) is offering in financial incentives to municipalities that adopt a uniform New York State solar permit process.  However, at a recent town board meeting on January 11, the Town of Evans announced it is looking into an opt-out of a 40-year-old state law that provides businesses and homeowners a tax exemption for their use of solar or wind energy.

Why would the town want to consider to OPT OUT of a TAX EXEMPTION for its citizens when it just voted to OPT IN to the NYS solar permit process?   Well it really doesn’t want to, but there are a number of reasons why this has come up in discussion.

There currently is a NY state law which gives home owners AND businesses a 15-year tax exemption on the installation of any solar energy systems on their property (hence our opt-in for the NYS solar permit process).  This means that, as a homeowner your property taxes will NOT INCREASE because you decide to put solar panels or solar shingles on your roof, even though this would be considered a taxable improvement on your home.  That’s great for us as a residential user of solar energy.  We are looking to lower our energy bills, not much more. And we already would be putting out a lot of money for the solar panel installation.

solar_water_heater

Solar panel hot water heaters are very affordable and help reduce energy bills.

However, the same law also applies to businesses installing solar energy farms that generate energy which they sell and profit from.  Now here is the BIG KICKER. These solar energy companies are approaching land owners here in Evans who have enough acreage to LEASE their property as locations for solar panel farms.

Let’s break this down tax-wise.  Under the CURRENT SOLAR TAX LAWS of NYS, the ONLY ones paying taxes on the property being leased to the solar companies would be the property owners. Their property is still subject to real estate taxes.  Not only that, but any PROFIT these land owners make will be considered TAXABLE income.   So the tax breaks for solar farms IN NO WAY benefit the landowner NOR the Town of Evans – they ONLY benefit the solar companies.

In addition, some of these solar companies require that the land owner add them to their property note or title, not to mention that they may not take responsibility for cleaning up the property if their business fails and they leave. The landowner will be responsible – they are then, obviously, a business partner.

Finally, large properties have agricultural tax exemptions, which they will lose if solar farms are built on agricultural property. PLUS these landowners will need to back pay FIVE YEARS of tax exemptions!  And, their property would now be assessed as “light industrial” – which puts them under another whole set of tax laws. The Town of Evans Agricultural Board AND also the Conservation Board have both already expressed concern over our town having enough agricultural space left if these solar farms begin to pop up without some kind of restrictions.

So you see the dilemma which we have.  The moratorium is in place – and actually has been renewed – because the Town of Evans is working on developing a comprehensive plan that will define areas that may be rezoned as light industrial, and to put in place all local laws, pilots and guidelines for the construction of solar and other alternative energy farms.  This is where we use  our right under the Home Rule to protect ourselves and our town.

Solar Panels heating a large greenhouse

Solar Panels heating a large greenhouse

By the way, these solar companies can challenge the moratorium by applying to a Citing Board under Article 10 of NYS law. This is why it is so important for us to have our laws and guidelines in place.  On the brighter side, Evans has already received grant money for creating both this comprehensive plan , as well as a comprehensive plan for our waterfront development (LWRP- Local Waterfront Revitalization Plan)  Ironically, one solar company has already proposed to put up a solar farm at Sturgeon Point!

So what is already happening and what else is on our Town Board’s plate regarding the “solar tax” dilemma?

THE MORATORIUM:  As mentioned before, the board has put in place a moratorium on any construction of solar farms in Evans. This was necessary  for several reasons  First, we have a code which states that the town needs a 60-day WRITTEN legal notice of intent to come into our town and start a construction project. Since the Supervisor’s office has already received such notice from Cyprus Creek Renewables AND a half dozen others (in some form or other), the moratorium was necessary since we do not yet have a comprehensive plan for the construction of solar farms in place.

THE STANDARDIZED SOLAR RESIDENTIAL PERMIT:   There are currently about 31 solar energy home projects installed in the town of Evans.  Of those, only TWO (2) have gone through the tax assessor’s office and have filled out the the Standardized Residential Solar Permit.  Therefore, legally, only those two residents are eligible for the tax increase exemption.  Town Supervisor Mary Hosler indicated that the application for the permit will be mailed to the remaining 29 residents to fill out and return to the assessor’s office, so that they would not lose out on the tax exemption. At this time, the Town has NOT reassessed those 29 properties. (Thank you!)

Floating Solar Panels for heating swimming pools.

Floating Solar Panels for heating swimming pools.

BONDING:  The Supervisor’s office is currently working on protecting those property owners who are looking to lease to the solar companies, as well as the town. Since these panels have only a life span of roughly 25 years – and there is no guarantee that they will be successful and be in business that long – Bonds will be written and used to protect the property owners against liability for failed solar farms
– against what happens to the actual panels
– against what happens to the posts erected in the ground
– against what happens to the remaining debris and refuse left behind

FAIR ASSESSMENTS:  The towns assessor and attorneys are currently working on a fair and balanced assessment guideline for those properties that have or will install solar energy panels or shingles on their properties.  As these residents ARE NOT using their system for any more than more saving on their own personal energy costs, the town feels that an appropriate and fair method of reassessing their property should be in place. Guidelines will take into consideration:
– system output
– fair market value annually
– whether panels are leased or owned

COMPREHENSIVE PLANNING:  Using the grant money Evans has already received, the supervisor’s office has hired Clark Lee Patterson planning agency to spearhead a comprehensive plan for the solar farming project.  They will be moving forward on mapping out areas in our town which would be acceptable locations for solar energy farming. A steering committee will be established which will work with CLP in establishing guidelines for future solar project. A notice will go out to invite interested town residents to participate on this vital committee.

ADDITIONAL SOLAR OPTIONS AND APPLICATIONS:  The Board recognizes that there are other uses for solar panels than just residential use or solar farming.  The Board will consider these as to where these fall into the comprehensive plan for the town.
– Solar heat your swimming pool
– Solar hot water heaters and pumps
– Solar green houses
– Solar home ventilation and heating systems
– Outside solar lighting

So to finish, you can see that this issue is not quite as cut and dry as voting to either opt out of the tax exemption law or not. The town IS under pressure to complete the comprehensive plan that will put in place the laws and pilots necessary for protecting our residents and land, and not allowing these solar companies to come into Evans and do as they please tax-free.  A suggestion was made that Mrs. Hosler make a point with Albany that the Solar Energy System Equipment Credit law that was written in 2013 may need to be adjusted to address the kind of dilemma it poses on rural towns like Evans, which are concerned with their environmental impact as well as their ecological footprint.

If you feel you need legal assistance with your solar energy project, NYSERDA offers such legal help for free.

If you would like to add your solar energy news or experience to this discussion, kindly submit your story in our Letters & Literary Contributions area (It’s free – just create a log-in and your are all set to submit!) The Evangola Daily Post would be happy to post your story or comments!