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No automatic tax breaks for Apex, local governments say

SOMERSET – The towns and school districts that would be affected by the proposed Apex Clean Energy wind power project are saying no to property tax breaks for the project.

Under a provision of the state Real Property Tax Law, any project that uses wind energy or farm waste to create electricity is entitled to a 15-year tax exemption unless the local taxing entities reject the notion by opting out of the abatement.

The Town of Yates did so late last year, according to Town Supervisor James J. Simon. The Lyndonville Board of Education opted out April 11, and the Barker Board of Education did the same last Monday.

Wednesday, an opt-out law was introduced at the Somerset Town Board meeting, and that board scheduled a public hearing and a probable vote for 6:30 p.m. June 8.

Somerset Supervisor Daniel M. Engert said the moves are being made “to protect our property values and our tax base in the face of this project being proposed.”

Despite the opt-outs, state law allows taxing jurisdictions to make agreements with wind power developers for payments in lieu of taxes, known as PILOTs.

Apex spokeswoman Cat Mosley said the company wants to discuss such arrangements once the locations are firm for the approximately 70 wind turbines in its proposed Lighthouse Wind project.

“The Town of Somerset, the Barker School District and Niagara County have been receiving PILOT payments from existing power generation facilities for years,” Mosley said in reference to the coal-fired power plant in Somerset. “Lighthouse Wind looks forward to continuing that tradition while bolstering not only the region’s energy security, but the economic and educational vitality of the region.”

Somerset and Yates are officially opposed to the wind project and have hired attorneys to fight it. However, the state Public Service Law was amended in 2011 with a new section, called Article 10, which placed the decision on such projects in the hands of a siting board, not local governments.

The board has seven members, five of whom are state officials and the other two of whom are local residents appointed by State Legislature leaders.

Local leaders have been complaining about what they consider a rigged process, and Engert had more complaints Wednesday about meetings between Apex and state and federal agencies from which the town’s representatives were barred.

The town filed a motion with a Public Service Commission panel of administrative law judges to open the proceedings, which Engert said was denied during a telephone conference. Also, the judges imposed a gag order on the participants.

Engert commented that state law says the public is supposed to have a chance to comment on any agreement between the parties to narrow the issues before the siting board. Lawyers call such agreements “stipulations.”

“It limits the effectiveness of public comment if the stipulations are negotiated in private without public or community input,” Engert said in a prepared statement. “This is a direct consequence of the elimination of home rule in Article 10.”

He said the town’s attorney, former state Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco, will try to get the judges to reconsider and make the process “fully open to all residents of Somerset.”