New Haven selectboard says ‘no’ to solar

NEW HAVEN — New Haven took steps to control its own solar future Oct. 21 when the selectboard voted to oppose two proposed solar projects within its borders and to participate in Public Service Board proceedings for all future applications for solar arrays.
The board voted unanimously to oppose a 2.2-megawatt array on Field Days Road proposed by Green Peak Solar and a 5.5-megawatt array on Route 7 by GroSolar.
Board Chair Kathy Barrett said the selectboard opposed the GroSolar project, which would be one of the largest ever built in Vermont, because it would ruin the pristine view of the Champlain Valley that motorists enjoy from Route 7.
“The GroSolar array on Route 7 we don’t want to support because of the good viewsheds there,” Barrett said. “They didn’t want to put any screening there.”
Selectman Doug Tolles said he opposed the projects because he believes they violate the town plan, which states that solar arrays sited in New Haven should not be larger than 300 kilowatts. He added that he believes the solar projects would lower the value of the town’s grand list.
“They do more damage to town property values than they add,” Tolles said.
The selectboard chose not to oppose a separate proposal from GroSolar, a 5.5-megawatt array on Sawyer Road. Barrett said the board felt that location would be better than Route 7 for an array because it would be seen by fewer people.
“We’re not opposing the Sawyer Road array because there is going to be screening, and it won’t be very visible,” she said.
The selectboard also voted to weigh in on every single project — no matter how large or small — that is filed with the Public Service Board. Barrett said the board did not want to oppose all solar projects at face value, and instead will evaluate each individual project.
The planning commission on Oct. 27 agreed with the selectboard’s decision to offer input on every proposed array in New Haven, but did not pass judgment on any particular project.
Planning commission Chair Francie Caccavo said the town doesn’t want to categorically oppose solar projects. Rather, she advocated that New Haven take a pragmatic approach by working with regulators and solar firms to find common ground.
“In a perfect world it would be nice for us to figure out some solar — not 50 percent of the state’s need — in a way that our residents are comfortable with,” Caccavo told her fellow planning commission members. “I don’t want to say no just because the town plan says 300 kilowatts.”
Caccavo added that the state will not reach its goal to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050 if it only approves one-acre, 150-kilowatt solar arrays.
The motions by the town boards were little more than public declarations, as municipalities have no direct control over where utility projects are approved or sited. That authority lies solely with the Public Service Board.
But at least one solar firm seems to be open to New Haven’s concerns. GroSolar Vice President of Operations Rod Viens said the company is putting the kibosh on its proposed Route 7 array.
“Given the comments from the selectboard, planning board, community and other conversations regarding the Route 7 scenic vistas that are important to the New Haven community, we were prepared to forgo the Route 7 location for a solar project,” Viens said.
Viens added that the company plans to move forward with the Sawyer Road proposal, and believes it can garner town support for a project that won’t compromise the town’s cherished viewsheds or agrarian aesthetics.
“We believe we can work with the various boards including the regional planning commission to bring a project to the community that will have minimal impact,” Viens said.
A representative from Green Peak Solar did not immediately return a call for comment.
Solar firms consider the Champlain Valley an ideal site for solar projects because of its abundance of flat, open land and proximity to the three-phase power lines. New Haven alone has been deluged with more than a dozen proposals, some of which are little more than ideas and others that have been formally filed with the Public Service Board.
Naturally, towns like New Haven are looking to calculate what sort of tax revenue the arrays will bring in. Like any piece of property, the land on which a solar array sits is taxed based on its fair market value to pay for town budgets and the state education fund.
Solar arrays are also taxed based on the value of the array itself, called the solar capacity tax. This year, the Legislature amended the way arrays are taxed in an effort to create certainty for the fledgling solar industry. Using a complex formula created by the Sandia National Laboratories in New Mexico, lawmakers ordered towns to lower the grand list value of new arrays by 30 percent.
However, that rate is fixed for 25 years, meaning that the assessed value of arrays, and subsequent tax bill based on that assessment, will not depreciate as most other property would.
The New Haven selectboard and planning commission calculate that based on the new formula, the town stands to lose thousands of dollars in solar tax revenue next year, than it would have received under the old tax. But Andrew Savage of AllEarth Renewables, a Williston solar firm, said that while this may be true, towns will end up receiving more tax revenue over the 25-year period the formula specifies.
Savage helped lobby for the bill this session, and said it is more equitable to municipalities and makes sense of the solar industry.
“What was decided through working with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and assessors was that it made more sense to have a fixed price over those 25 years, rather than have the (value of arrays) decline over 25 years,” Savage said.
In short, Savage said towns will likely receive less tax revenue from arrays in the initial years of the 25-year period than through the old tax, but more in later years, resulting in more tax revenue overall.
“When we do the math over the life of the system, towns will get more in value,” Savage said.
So why would the solar industry lobby for heavier taxes? Savage said that with all of the uncertainty surrounding state and federal subsidies, tax credits and other benefits, solar firms want a tax structure they know won’t change, even if it means paying a little more.
“The primary reason was predictability,” he said. “One of the biggest barriers to solar development, whether it’s residential or commercial, is deployment of capital, getting banks to lend, having a long-term cash flow, and having predictability.”
Savage said he views the new tax methodology to be a subsidy of the solar industry, but sound policy that exemplifies Vermont’s commitment to renewable energy.
“It’s a good thing for the municipalities that are hosting solar and getting additional tax revenue, and for the industry,” Savage said.
Officials in New Haven remain skeptical that the new tax formula will be beneficial.
Selectboard Chair Barrett said she’s worried that in the future, the Legislature may change the tax formula again to further benefit the solar industry, meaning municipalities would not get the higher tax revenues they expect toward the end of the 25-year period.
“What’s to say (the solar industry) won’t lobby the Legislature in five or 10 years?” Barrett posed.
She said based on her calculations, New Haven will receive the same tax revenue under the new formula as the old formula.
“I would say it’s revenue neutral,” Barrett said. “We’ll get the same revenue every year, instead of more now and less later.”
Selectman Tolles said he doesn’t agree with Savage’s analysis of how the solar tax works.
“I do not agree with their math,” he said. “I fully understand the calculation, and they are simply not telling the truth.”
Tolles added that he does not believe solar companies will pay more taxes under this formula, as Savage said, than under the old formula.
“Either way, if you do the depreciation tables and tax tables out 25 years, they are getting a tax break at the taxpayers’ expense,” Tolles said.
But Chittenden County assessors see the new tax formula as a boon to municipalities.
Todd LeBlanc, the vice president of the Vermont Association of Listers and Assessors (VALA), helped legislators craft the new solar tax. He said a primary goal for VALA was to implement a tax that would be easy for municipalities to understand and calculate.
“We analyzed the data over the life of the solar facilities, and simply came up with a way to average the value over 25 years, so the listers don’t have to revalue every year,” said LeBlanc, who also serves as the assesor in South Burlington. “Having to do it annually was a burden on listers.”
LeBlanc said the proposal the solar industry brought to the table, taxing arrays $4 for every kilowatt, would have left towns with much less tax revenue.
“It would have been disastrous for municipalities,” LeBlanc said.
Randy Viens, the assessor in Essex (and no relation to GroSolar’s Rod Viens), said the new tax was a result of a consensus reached between the solar industry, the state tax department, local assessors and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns. He said the tax is both fair to towns and easy to interpret.
“This was a much better avenue than what the industry proposed,” Viens said.

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