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Town weighs renewable energy exemptions

PUTNEY—When Town Manager Cynthia Stoddard presented the 2016 Town Meeting warning to the Selectboard for its approval recently, members unanimously accepted it, with one notable exception: Article 5, which asks if the town should revisit the tax-exemption for renewable energy projects.

During a lengthy discussion between Stoddard and the board, it became evident there were more questions than answers about this law, and whether state statute supports it.

As of 2014 Town Meeting, all net-metered renewable energy projects over 50 kilowatts are exempt from municipal taxation. However, Stoddard said there is some question about what residents voted on. She said this was brought to her attention by Putney’s listers.

When residents voted for the rule change, Stoddard questioned whether they thought they were exempting properties using renewable energy for personal use only, and not to make money selling the energy. Did townspeople know they were voting for solar arrays owned by for-profit companies, she asked.

“Should we let the voters decide again if that’s okay?” Stoddard asked the Selectboard.

Putney’s statute does not make the distinction between a renewable energy system earning a profit, and one for personal use only.

And, according to Stoddard, state officials and Putney’s town attorney have varying interpretations of the law. She has tried getting the state to give her a written determination on the statutes, but has been unsuccessful so far. Stoddard said “it may take some case law” for the state to work this out.

“I can see the potential of this being a very confusing conversation at Town Meeting,” Stoddard said.

She noted the possibility of the discussion “getting very personal.”

Board member Scott Henry questioned whether taking up the issue at town meeting will look like “we’re presenting a case against solar development.”

Although the board and Stoddard agreed this conversation is worth having on a town-wide level, they thought springing it on residents — and the owners of the renewable energy arrays — with such short notice before Town Meeting is unfair.

Stoddard said there is “no harm” in putting off the conversation until next year, especially because there are only four solar arrays affected by this statute, and the tax revenue the town may gain if the law were changed is less than $4,000. The Selectboard can always send the issue to the Tax-Exempt Committee.

“We should probably have a public meeting about it six months in advance of the vote [so everyone] can do their homework,” said board member Josh Laughlin.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #344 (Wednesday, February 17, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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