Cape Gazette

Milton not making it easy to go green, residents say

Leased solar panels results in increased property tax bill
By Nick Roth | Dec 12, 2013
Photo by: Nick Roth Residents in Wagamon's West Shores are upset that their property tax bills increased after installing solar panels on their homes. Many neighboring states prohibit an increase in taxes or fees associated with solar systems.

For Wagamon's West Shore resident Bob Heinrich, going green was a no-brainer. Last year, he partnered with Clean Energy USA to lease solar panels for his Milton home. The savings over the next 20 years should amount to about $20,000, he said.

What he didn't expect to see, however, was his property tax bill increase 10 percent.

John Sertich, president of Clean Energy USA, said this is the first time he's encountered an increase in property taxes for folks taking advantage of his company's program. He said he's tried to ask Milton officials why they chose to include the panels in the tax assessment, but hasn't had much luck.

“The heart of the issue from my standpoint is [the town] should make a ruling on it, explain what they're doing and explain why this happened,” he said.

He said his company's solar leasing program is akin to residents who have propane tanks.

“What's the difference?” he said. “You're getting fuel from one, you're getting fuel from the other.”

Mayor Marion Jones referred comment to Milton Town Solicitor Seth Thompson.

Thompson said property owners should have appealed their assessment in a timely fashion. Town council hears property tax appeals at the beginning of each year. He said the town's charter states that assessments factor in the land and any improvements.

“There is not an express distinction between leased and purchased improvements,” he said.

Thompson said he doesn't know how the assessor has treated solar panels in the past.

Clean Energy USA sells solar panels to residents and commercial entities, but also offers a leasing program. In that case, Clean Energy USA installs and maintains the panels. The resident is responsible only for a monthly lease payment over a 20-year period. The savings received from going green results in a cheaper monthly bill when the electric bill and lease payments are combined.

Dale Davis, president of the Delaware Solar Energy Coalition, said he knows of no other towns in Delaware that have increased fees for residents who choose to take a more environmentally friendly approach to powering their home. But there is nothing that prohibits municipalities from doing so, he said.

“There is no specific law preventing any tax entity in Delaware from including the value of a solar array in the assessment of real property for tax determination,” he said. “But this is the first time I have heard of a solar array specifically being added into the assessed value.”

Neighboring states have passed laws preventing just that. New Jersey and Maryland each have bans on taxation of solar systems under property and sales tax exemptions, he said, and some Maryland counties offer property tax credits of as much as 50 percent on the whole tax bill when solar systems are installed.

Heinrich and his neighbors likely would not receive tax credits because they do not own the solar panels. What Heinrich and several of his neighbors would like is an explanation of why they are being taxed on something they do not own.

“We don't get to keep these. They can be taken down at any time without our say,” he said. “In fact, it can be a liability for us if we want to sell our homes.”

He said the most frustrating part has been a lack of communication from town hall.

“They got elected on transparency. This is not transparent,” he said.

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