RICHMOND – Legislation being watched by Highland and Bath citizens moved along a little further in the General Assembly this week.
Bills related to wind energy facilities, school funding, and the proposed homestead exemption for property taxes have all been communicated to the House or Senate.
Environmental impact of renewable power plants
Sen. Frank Wagner’s Senate Bill 321, which would amend the Code of Virginia related to the environmental impact of renewable energy electric utilities, was communicated to the House Feb. 12, and referred to the Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake and Natural Resources.
It reads, “When considering the environmental impact of any renewable energy electrical utility facility, the Department shall consult with interested agencies of the Commonwealth that have expertise in natural resource management. The Department shall submit recommendations to the State Corporation Commission that take into account the information and comments submitted by such natural resource agencies concerning the potential environmental impacts of the proposed electric generating facility. The Department’s recommendations shall include: (i) specific mitigation measures considered necessary to minimize adverse environmental impacts; (ii) any additional site-specific studies considered to be necessary; and (iii) the scope and duration of any such studies. Nothing in this subsection shall alter or affect the Rules of Practice and Procedure of the State Corporation Commission.”
The related house bill (HB 1466) requires the Department of Environmental Quality to evaluate all the information from other state agencies and pull together a consensus recommendation for the SCC. This bill was referred to the House Committee on Agriculture, Chesapeake, and Natural Resources, then to the committee on commerce and labor, and then to a subcommittee on energy, where it has apparently been left. No further action on this bill at this session is anticipated.
Streamlining the process
Wagner’s second bill (SB 324) was intended to exempt smaller renewable electric facilities from SCC authority by amending language under the Utility Facilities Act that redefines what a renewable energy, public utility is, such that any plant generating less than 50 megawatts does not fall under such SCC review. Wagner, who had introduced it primarily in response to the length of time Highland New Wind Development’s project was under review by the SCC, removed it from consideration; it was continued to 2009.
The house version of this bill (HB 1443) calls for a streamlined permitting process on utilities generating power with solar, wind or biomass. It keeps permitting fees at $50 or less, and requires the SCC to act on permit applications in 60 days. The bill, as amended, was referred to the Senate Feb. 11. It went through the Committee on Agriculture, Conservation and Natural Resources, and reported out of committee unanimously Feb. 18. The following day the bill was read to the full Senate.
The bill states that a “qualified energy generator” means a “commercial facility É with the capacity annually to generate no more than five megawatts of electricity, or produce the equivalent amount of energy in the form of fuel, steam, or other energy product, that is generated or produced from biomass and that is sold to an unrelated person or used in a manufacturing process.” It paves the way for an expedited review process for a state permit unless the energy generator is subject to a major new source review program required by the federal Clean Air Act, in which case the new language would not apply.
School funding bill to affect Highland, Rappahannock
The bill to give more localities an opportunity at increased education funding from the state passed the Senate with changes, and was communicated to the House.
Sen. Mark Obenshain (R-Harrisonburg) introduced Senate Bill 559 to allow other counties besides Highland to negotiate for more education dollars by striking agreements with neighboring school divisions to use lower composite index ratings – an arrangement Highland has used with Augusta County for several years.
The composite index figure is based on a state funding formula that considers real estate property taxes, sales tax revenue, population numbers, and the number of students enrolled in a locality’s schools.
The originial legislation allowed Highland to combine forces with Augusta because it affected school divisions with fewer than 350 students; Highland is currently the only division that qualifies.
Obenshain’s bill as introduced would adjust the minimum student number up from 350 to 1,200, which would affect several more divisions, including Bath County, by allowing them to enter into cost-savings agreements with contiguous school divisions.
But before it was turned over to the House, it was amended to drop the student number to 1,100, and a stipulation was added that the bill would affect only those localities with an index rating of .60 or greater, meaning the counties or cities pay for 60 percent of the cost of education. In addition, it was changed such that only ones with 65 percent or more of their local taxes coming from real estate would qualify.
Obenshain’s bill as amended passed with a 23-15 vote in the Senate.
It was referred to the House Feb. 12, and now sits in the Committee on Education there.
Its impact statement on the amended version estimates now that only Rapphannock County schools would join Highland in qualifying. Assuming Rappahannock uses neighboring Culpeper’s composite index rating, there would be an additional $146,000 in year one, and $202,000 in year two from the state when the bill would become effective.
‘Homestead exemption’ bill sits in committee
Legislation dubbed the “homestead exemption” was reintroduced in this session of the General Assembly. It passed the Senate 36-3, was referred to the House, Feb. 12, and now sits in a constitutional subcommittee of the Committee on Privileges and Elections. It would provide tax relief for certain property owners in Virginia, allows localities to provide tax exemptions by ordinance.
Senate Bill 496 was introduced by Senator Ralph Northam (D-Norfolk). It would give local governments the ability to cut property taxes for residential or farm property by an amount not to exceed 20 percent of the value of any single parcel.
The bill would affect tax years beginning on or after Jan. 1, 2009. Each governing body (county, city or town) could create an ordinance to exempt, or partially exempt, certain property owners from real property taxes, allow for deferring property taxes, or provide for a combination of exemptions and deferrals.
Properties that qualify would include residential or farm properties designed for continuous habitation, and that are occupied as of the tax day as the primary dwelling of the owners, who must be individuals.
The referendum to allow this amendment would be on the November ballots. Should this legislation pass, it would still have to survive a statewide referendum
By Anne Adams
21 February 2008