About 35 members of the public and local officials gathered at the Newfield Town Offices Feb. 6 to express their opinions regarding a solar project proposed by Delaware River Solar.
About half of those attending addressed the members of the Tompkins County Industrial Development Agency (IDA), which was hosting the meeting.
The solar company, based in New York City, is proposing three adjacent two-megawatt solar arrays located on Millard Hill Road. If approved, the project would be Delaware River’s first community solar project and the second project of its kind in all of New York State.
Another pair of two-megawatt arrays is proposed by Delaware River on Burdge Hill Road, but that project is in the earlier stages of development.
Unlike the Cornell University solar farm on Snyder Road near the Tompkins County Airport, the community solar project would not power a single institution or private entity. Instead, the power generated by the solar arrays would go to the grid and Newfield residents would have the ability to purchase power from the solar company for 10 percent less than the current NYSEG rate.
The school, town and county can all choose to opt out of state property tax exemptions for solar, and at a meeting last month the Newfield Central School Board voted that they would opt out in order to reserve its right to tax solar panels.
The IDA, however, has been given authority by the State of New York to negotiate Payment in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreements for these types of renewable energy projects and therefore has final say when it comes to taxing them.
The public hearing was a mandatory step for the IDA in its process to approve the PILOT, and Michael Stamm, president of Tompkins County Area Development, said that the matter may be put to vote at the IDA’s March meeting.
The IDA has designed a PILOT program that would require Delaware River Solar to pay $8,000 per megawatt per year plus a two percent increase each year to account for inflation. The PILOT would be split between the town, county and school district based on the amount of property tax collected by each.
Heather McDaniel, administrative director of the IDA, told the Newfield News back in December that it’s very likely the IDA would arrive at a total dollar amount for the PILOT and split the payment between the school district, county and town based on the property tax collected by each.
Typically school districts account for about 60 percent of the total tax rate, so 60 percent of the PILOT would go to the school district. In Newfield, the 2016 town tax rate is $6 per $1,000 of assessed value, $3.16 for the county and $17.88 for the school district.
Jeff Hart, Newfield Town Supervisor, said that he takes issue with the fact that the Town Board was already in the final phase of negotiating a PILOT with Delaware River. He said the company had agreed to a deal that would have generated about $60,000 more in revenue over the 20 years of the PILOT than the one suggested by the IDA.
“I think everyone here would love to see green energy, but I don’t want you to shortchange us,” Hart said.
Stamm said that the IDA is working on establishing a uniform countywide incentive program and several members of the public suggested that the IDA develop a baseline for a PILOT but that municipalities be allowed to negotiate a higher rate if they are able.
Cheryl Thomas, Newfield Central School District Superintendent, also asked that the IDA reconsider the amount of the PILOT, saying that the school district could collect $100,000 per year in property taxes from the solar project.
IDA Board Member Martha Robertson disputed that statement, saying that solar companies would never consider building in an area that would require that kind of property tax.
“That’s not true because it wouldn’t come here,” she said. “The idea is that New York State has a policy to try to encourage renewable energy, so it’s not taxable.”
Many locals told the IDA that they do not want to see solar being constructed on land that could be used for agriculture, which is the case with all of the sites being proposed currently. Though the IDA members said it was not in their purview to review site selection, they allowed the comments.
Other concerns included decommissioning requirements, runoff water contaminating local creeks and the effect the solar panels might have on the values of the surrounding properties. The IDA board members reiterated that those issues would have to be taken up with the Newfield Town Board.
“We are supporting renewable energy as best we can in Tompkins County,” said Jim Dennis, IDA board member. “None of us have skin in the game when it comes to what people do with their land.”
Rich Winter of Delaware River Solar was in attendance, and although the IDA asked that he not respond during the public hearing, he stayed for more than 20 minutes after the meeting adjourned to chat with residents and answer their questions.
The Newfield Town Board is currently in the process of drafting a local solar law that would address issues like setback, glare and potential health concerns. The new law would impact future solar projects but would not affect the arrays already proposed by Delaware River Solar.