Cortland County Legislature tables Solar PILOT law amendment

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An amendment to the Cortland County law on Payments in Lieu of Taxes (PILOT) agreements for solar energy projects was tabled for further review of public comments at Thursday’s Legislature meeting. 

The amendment eliminates the county’s asking price of $7,000 per megawatt (MW) generated and codifies the need for PILOT agreements on solar projects. 

The local law also designates the County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) as the lead agency to negotiate a PILOT agreement if a developer proposes a project directly to county officials. If a project is proposed directly to a municipality, that municipality can negotiate a PILOT with the developer.

Several speakers spoke in favor and against the law Thursday, prompting legislators to reconsider the agenda item based on feedback provided.

“I want to let the public, who have been giving us great feedback tonight in the public comment section, know that this item will be pulled from the agenda and will be going back to the Agriculture, Planning and Environmental Committee for consideration in January,” said Minority Leader Beau Harbin (D-LD-2). “If we do make changes, rest assured there will be another public hearing to continue to provide feedback from the public as we look to adjust the local law.”

Victor Siegle, a resident of the village of Homer, spoke in opposition of the measure, noting that several municipal leaders are also in opposition.

“Decisions of the IDA should lead to happiness, not discontent,” he said. “The main point of giving a property tax abatement is to create or retain long term jobs. Current solar projects do not accomplish either goal.”

One of Siegle’s concerns is the reduced rate per MW. At a previous Legislature committee meeting, IDA Executive Director Garry VanGorder said negotiations with developers would likely start at $4,000 per MW if the amendment is approved.

“Current solar rates are not based on investment. They are not based on market value. They are not based on profit,” Siegle said. “Current solar pilot rates are plucked from thin air, and no one is ever held responsible for the validity of the decision.”

Siegle also noted the IDA could be in a potential conflict of interest if the amendment goes through, given that the IDA receives a 1 percent fee from every solar project that comes to the county.

“In addition, almost no one understands the relationship between solar pilot rates and actual property tax distributions, leading to even more disagreements,” he said.

Pamela Jenkins, a resident of Cortlandville, noted that PILOTs typically lead to losses in revenue for localities in schools. 

“Instead of losing income to (solar developers), we believe that legislators should remain engaged, as their constituents elected them to act in the community's best interest, and legislators should not cede all negotiating power to the IDA,” she said.

VanGorder spoke in support of the amendment.

“It could not be more clear if you're serious about facilitating solar development in Cortland County, and if you want to send that message to those who would like to invest and build here, then a reset of your local law is warranted,” he said.

For Michael Barilsky, a member of Cortlandville’s solar committee, the amendment is seen as a way to address climate change. Barylski, a former Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) employee, has a contractual relationship with EDF Renewables, a company that has expressed interest in setting up solar projects in the county.

“A vote against the proposed change in the law is a vote against a sustainable future for all of us,” he said.