Solar arrays added to Manchester grand list

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MANCHESTER — The Select Board last week voted to amend the town's 2019 grand list to add a half dozen existing solar arrays mistakenly omitted from the document.

The new solar additions to the grand list — essentially treated as parcels separate from the underlying land, which had not been omitted — amount to "a little more than" $3,500 in tax revenue for the current fiscal year, Town Manager John O'Keefe said in an email.

Solar installations with capacities of 50 kilowatts or higher are subject to municipal property taxes through an approach outlined in state law, according to a Vermont Department of Taxes info sheet. The state also imposes a $4-per-kW "Solar Energy Capacity Tax" on such systems, though they are exempt from education property taxes.

Town Assessor Gordon Black, in an interview this week, ascribed the omissions to an "unnecessarily complicated" process established by the state for permitting and valuing the facilities.

Once a solar developer has obtained a certificate of public good for the system from the Vermont Public Utility Commission, it must file a one-page form with the town clerk. The town then asks the developer to complete an inventory form, and the municipality plugs that information into an online tool to calculate the installation's value.

It's "not like appraising a house at all," Black said of the process.

Some of the facilities were constructed this year, while others are older than that, said Black, who did not fault the developers or anyone in town government for the omissions. Most of the developers filed the requisite form with the clerk, he said.

Black credited Hunter and Hand, LLC, the owner of three of the six arrays added to the list, including one at Riley Rink, for its attentiveness following the omissions' discovery. A member of the company, Thomas Hand, didn't respond to emails seeking comment by press time.

Ben Weiss, of Weiss Properties, LLC, the owner of another array — located at 130 Taconic Business Park — that was added to the list, said in an email last week that he intended to fulfill the town's request for information on the system, though he questioned the fairness of taxing only large-scale facilities.

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"If you're going to tax solar, why not all solar installations?" he wrote. "[It's] analogous to the town taxing only homes over $500,000. It makes no sense to me."

The average size of a solar panel system in the U.S. is only about six kW, according to EnergySage, an online solar marketplace.

"Large solar arrays are not a good return on investment," Weiss wrote. "It will take quite a long time for me to break even on a project like this — even before the additional property taxes are [levied]."

Black said there are total of nine solar arrays, including the six recently added to the grand list, with capacities of 50 kW or higher in Manchester.

O'Keefe said that the town's zoning and assessing offices routinely coordinate on construction permits, but the municipality is typically not involved in the permitting process for solar facilities. That fact coupled with how solar arrays might not be visible from roadways because of screening and site selection can make it difficult to keep tabs on them.

"The permitting system for solar is not ideal for assessing," O'Keefe said.

Black, who took over the assessor position in March, said he identified the omissions after the town issued its recent request for proposals related to a future town-wide reappraisal for the 2021 or 2022. One of the firms that responded to the solicitation asked about utility properties, which prompted Black to realize there weren't "as many as there should be" on the grand list.

Black used Google Maps' satellite view to identify solar panels atop buildings, but at least one of the newer facilities — located off of Pig Pen Road — is not yet visible via the online tool, he said.

Thanks to Black's efforts, the town now has "a good handle on solar permitting going forward," O'Keefe said.

Contact Luke Nathan at lnathan@benningtonbanner.com.


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