, Newburyport, MA

December 6, 2012

Newbury selectman courting solar array

Portion of proposed site default on property taxes

By Jennifer Solis

---- — NEWBURY — Two private landowners — including a town selectman — have agreed to lease acreage for the next 20 years to accommodate a renewable energy site in Newbury.

Selectman Chairman Joe Story and Richard D. Corsetti are teaming up with Borrego Solar of Lowell and the City of Methuen to locate a 4.2-megawatt solar array for electricity generation through the National Grid network, according to a press release issued this week.

The lease is part of a larger plan to install and operate a ground-mounted solar array in Methuen, which is expected to save that city approximately $125,000 in electric costs annually with no exposure to inflation.

Although the town of Newbury is not a signer on the lease, it still stands to benefit from the agreement through receipt of $672,000 in personal property tax revenues generated from the local array over the life of the lease. The town will also receive a one-time building permit fee of $125,000. According to the press release, the project, which is due to be installed “in the near future,” will not add demands for town services.

The exact location of the Newbury site has yet to be disclosed.

But Town Administrator Tracy Blais confirmed that the property Story is leasing is one of three parcels on which he and other family members owe nearly $10,000 in back taxes to the town. Story and his family own 6.25 acres at 240 High Road, 2.27 acres at 29 Newbury Neck Road, .93 acres at 32 Newbury Neck Road, all of which have delinquent tax payments.

An Instrument of Taking‚ the legal mechanism by which the town takes title of a property for non-payment of taxes, was issued in December 2011. Blais stressed that the town follows the same procedures for all delinquency — a demand for payment, followed by a tax lien and finally a foreclosure.

“This collaboration does not halt that process; it is a completely separate issue,” Blais said. Once the back taxes on a property are paid, the town files an Instrument of Redemption with the Registry of Deeds and title is restored to the owner.”

The land being pursued for the array is currently zoned under 61A — a state tax exemption in place to support and promote agricultural use. This means that the owners were granted reduced real estate taxes from the town as long as the land was used for agricultural purposes or to generate farming jobs, revenues and food supplies.

But “the reality is that in 2012, the economic model for farming no longer exists in this part of the country and the demands for town services makes it difficult for communities to forego the property tax revenues,” the press release says.

Carri Keville of the Newbury assessors office said that currently, the state has made no official determination whether a property can remain in 61A if a change of use from farming to solar occurs.

But Keville said any change of use is in itself a cause for removal from the state tax shelter.

“However many acres are changed would be the acres removed,” she said. A penalty tax with interest and fees would be required at the time of conveyance.

Under the agreement being pursued with Borrego Solar, at the end of the 20-year lease term, the array will be removed and the land returned to its original condition. The current owners or their successors will retain ownership of the property. The press release also says there are no environment risks or toxic materials associated with the project and that it doesn’t create impervious surfaces or impact the water table.

When reached yesterday, Bob O’Brien, managing director of American Renewable Energy & Sustainability Solutions of Newburyport (AmRESS), said he was reluctant to provide copies of the lease because it was a private agreement between the landowners and Borrego Solar. AmRESS assists municipalities and businesses in evaluating and implementing renewable energy projects.

“In fact, I am bound by a confidentiality agreement not to disclose,” O’Brien said. He added, “The actual addresses will be available once the formal permitting process has been completed.”

According to O’Brien, Borrego Solar is entering two agreements — a Power Purchase Agreement with the city of Methuen and a Land Lease Agreement with Story and Coretti.

“It may seem convoluted, but imagine trying to negotiate directly between two Massachusetts municipalities. Everyone and everything is protected on both sides, but no one has to deal directly,” he said.

Last summer, Newbury selectmen OK’d a request from AmRESS to conduct a preliminary investigation into siting a solar array on town-owned parcels at 81 Central St., Hanover Street or Boston Road. None of the proposed parcels met the criteria set by AmRESS because the parcels were “found to be either restricted as to usage at this time for recreational purposes” or “included significant amounts of wetlands vegetation” that could not accommodate an array of that size, O’Brien said.

When the municipal land proved unviable for the project, Blais said “private land owners stepped up … to create a useful purpose for the property and revenue benefits to the town.”

O’Brien said use of land in this way is now often referred to as “farming the sun.” It represents an innovative adaptation for communities to better meet the needs of increased operating costs without impacting taxpayers, he said.