Schoharie County gets huge win in solar assessment battle


By Patsy Nicosia

Sometimes the underdog comes out on top after all.
In a decision that came shortly before noon on Friday, State Supreme Court Justice Christina Ryba ruled in favor of a local petition challenging the state’s new assessment model for solar and wind.
That model would have reduced local property tax revenues on solar and wind facilities by as much as 85 percent and was due to go into effect Monday.
Judge Rypa issued a temporary restraining order that prohibits the State Department of Taxation and Finance from requiring assessors use the formula while the second piece of the lawsuit filed by attorneys Lewis & Greer PC moves ahead in the courts.
That Article 78 petition challenges that the state ignored its own rules and procedures in coming up with the new formula.
There are also Constitutional issues at stake, said Blenheim Supervisor Don Airey, Energy Committee chair—and one of the plaintiffs; a decision in the next round could come as soon as June.
The State Supreme Court heard oral arguments in the assessment challenge Thursday, but Judge Rypa said she wanted an additional 24 hours to consider the facts of the case, Mr. Airey told members of the Energy Committee Thursday.
“We’re in the hunt,” he said. “We’ve got a long ways to go, it’s not good news, but it’s not bad news.
“Even if the temporary restraining order isn’t granted. It’s not the end of the world.”
Friday, it was good news and Mr. Airey was ecstatic.
By Saturday, his celebration was a little muted—if only, he said, because Justice Rypa’s ruling is just the first step.
“It has to play out in the courts,” he said.
Next, the court will consider the Article 78 petition.
If the court agrees that the state didn’t follow its own process and tosses the new assessment model, there’s always the chance that it could just require a more transparent re-do, Mr. Airey said—one that could end up better—or worse—for upstate communities.
Because counties can’t sue the state, the petition was filed by the Towns of Blenheim, Carlisle, Cobleskill, Conesville, Esperance, Jefferson, Middleburgh, Sharon and Summit; Mr. Airey, and Cindy West, wife of County Attorney Mike West.
Petitioners went ahead with the request for the temporary restraining order after getting blown off in a March 2 letter from Tax and Finance saying there was “no reference whatsoever to rules” in Real Property Tax Law 575-b and that they’d followed the right process.
“That could have all been avoided, but instead, they rebuffed us,” Mr. Airey said. “They had no desire to engage us in constructive dialogue. They left us no other option.
“I’m proud that Schoharie County is doing it. Someone has to. If you take what they give you, you deserve what you get. All we’re asking for is equity.”
With the temporary restraining order in place assessors will be using the existing formula to value projects, “maintaining the status quo pending a full hearing on the merits,” Judge Ryba wrote.
Like Mr. Airey, Sharon Supervisor Sandy Manko is holding off on the champagne, afraid in the end, developers of the 50-megawatt NextEra solar project will still win.
The state could have allowed municipalities to negotiate fair PILOTs and see some economic benefits, she said.
“We’re not against green energy, we just want solar and wind developers to pay their fair share,” she said.
An independent appraisal values the NextEra project at $99 million—which would mean $2.9 million in taxes annually.
Under the model being challenged? $478,000—a loss of $2.4 million.