Montgomery County Legislature mulls solar opt out

MOHAWK – The Town Board became the next in a long line of local governments to address the issue of solar farm taxation within the limits of their municipality Thursday evening. The item that is moving these discussions is a provision of a 1990s-era state law, section 487 of the state Real Property Tax Law, which automatically exempts farmland converted to solar power generation from taxation unless local governments choose to opt out.

The Montgomery County Legislature will be considering a decision to opt out based on the Budget and Finance Committee’s recommendation from their March 15 meeting.

Town Supervisor Ed Bishop opened the discussion by saying the town had three options: opt out, take no action and let the exemption stay in place, or declare a moratorium on solar projects, similar to what the town of Florida has done, until there can be more study of the issue.

Councilman Tony Bruno said there are currently no regulations for the Planning Board to use if they are approached to make a decision on a proposed solar site. He is uncomfortable with that and said “maybe a moratorium is the way to go” until we develop those rules.

The lack of such rules dealing with solar energy installations has in itself made the issue more complicated. Sole Town Assessor Stella Gittle said she had attended a seminar in Buffalo recently regarding the assessment of solar installations, but was disappointed the content of the seminar did not give any concrete assistance in how to accomplish the assessment. She said it mostly dealt with residential applications and that the general consensus was that the addition of solar power to a residence did not enhance the fair market value of the property. She said should the town opt out and tax these installations, she would have to bring in outside assistance to assess the first few as there were no comparables available on which to base and assessment.

Bishop said that several farmers in the area had already been approached about solar projects. The general rule was that the companies that build such facilities are looking at tracts of land at least 20 acres in size. Henry Boshart, a local town farmer, said he had been approached and he was considering an offer to utilize 20-40 acres of his land in the Old Trail Road area, which he said was not close to any neighbors and was shielded from view by stands of trees. He said the company that approached him, Cyprus Creek Renewables, “had 103 people signed up.”

Town attorney Robert Kruger said he has had several people in his office in regards to leasing contracts and that the leasing was certainly a tempting possibility for local farmers since the companies are offering $1,500 per acre per year for the use of the land.

In the end, the council decided to forego a decision on the issue until more work can be done with developing guidelines for these installations. Supervisor Bishop said he would contact the Planning Board to “get them going” on the project.

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