HARVARD -- A citizen's petition calling for the Special Town Meeting held last week also included three solar farm-related articles, numbered 2, 4 and 5 on the warrant.
Article 5 requested amended permit fees that would align amounts charged for inspecting private solar panel installations with those for a collection of panels erected at a community facility. The owners of the latter are shareholders in the solar project rather than individual homeowners installing a system.
Under the current set-up, permit fees are based on the value of the installation, which in the case of Solar Garden, LLC, translates to about $17,000, shareholder and project founder Worth Robbins said. But proponents want the fee to be based on "reasonable cost" of the inspection instead.
A similar-sized farm in another community is charged $3,645 for inspecting the facility, Robbins said. Article 5 proposes a fee of $8,050, which is about half of Harvard's commercial inspection fee.
But there was some objection. One resident likened it to "subsidizing investors in a business venture," since shares can be sold out of town. "This is not like a house," he said. "Carlson's didn't ask for this." The reference was to the local orchard whose owners installed a solar array on their property and presumably paid the commercial fee to inspect it.
The Finance Committee did not recommend the article because they did not favor "carving out an exception" to the existing fee schedule.
"This could be called a hidden tax," Robbins responded.
Another member said the solar farm, despite it's "LLC" designation, is not a business. The same restrictions applied to homeowners apply to the investors, too. "There's no way this is an investment opportunity," he said.
Asked what happens when an investor sells his house, Robbins said the solar garden share could be part of the sale, adding its electricity credits to the price. Or, it could be transferred to someone else in or outside the community. Either way, the shareholder would have to live in National Grid's "load zone." One investor, for example, is a former town resident who now lives in Bolton, he said.
Former Selectman Tim Clark said that while he was on the board, he took on the task of researching the matter and drafted an alternative fee schedule for solar farms but his colleagues "failed to develop consensus" on it. The current fee is "excessive" compared to other communities, he said.
When it came to a vote, the moderator declared the motion passed by the required two-thirds majority.
Article 2 requested support for filing special legislation to make "community solar shares" exempt from taxation, same as if they were installed for a homeowner on an individual site.
The motion passed without discussion by the required two-thirds majority, as did the motion for Article 3, inserted by the selectmen. It asked for authorization to broker a PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) deal for community solar systems, if and when an opportunity arises.
Article 4 was passed over, meaning that Town Meeting took no action. It asked for approval for a PILOT program, but since no such program exists, proponents didn't object to the selectmen's suggestion to table it.