October 23, 2018
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Board backs local assessor in dispute over home solar panels

Dreamstime | TNS
Dreamstime | TNS
Solar panels installed on the rooftop of a house.

YORK, Maine — With little discussion, the Board of Assessment Review unanimously decided at a recent meeting that assessor Rick Mace had the authority to charge homeowners for the solar panels on their houses, and denied a request for an abatement of that charge brought by a group of residents.

The decision came after Mace and an attorney for the Solar Owners of York Association presented their cases before the board. SOYA attorney Kristin Collins of the firm Preti Flaherty argued the $1,000-per-panel assessment is unreasonable and discriminatory. Mace argued he was assessing panels like he does any other amenity like a pool or shed and he does it fairly across the board.

SOYA was formed earlier this year after homeowners who installed solar panels on their roofs learned Mace was adding the per-panel assessment to their property’s overall value. For some people that meant an increase of $20,000 on the assessment of their home.

In her arguments before the board, Collins said Mace assessed solar panels as an addition to a house, like a shed, and not as part of the core assessment, like a conventional heating system. She said it wasn’t fair that solar was treated differently. In addition, he assessed the panels at more than their initial cost — an average of $710 per panel, she said.

She said as an addition to the house, generators are assessed at $5,000 and cost $5,000 to $20,000; an above ground pool is assessed on average at $1,700 when it actually costs $3,500 to $5,500.

She also objects to the fact Mace depreciates the panels at the same rate the house depreciates because panels depreciate much more rapidly. As a result, she said, people with newer houses are going to pay proportionately more than those with a house that is older, which she called discriminatory.

Fortunat Mueller, co-founder of Revision Energy, told the board charging a flat rate per panel doesn’t get to its worth – that it would be better to charge on the wattage of the panels, which reflects the real cost. He said the $1,000 per panel flat rate is “arbitrary.”

As for the panels adding to the market value of a house, Collins said there is no data in Maine. Further, said Mueller, the state has an “unstable policy” with regard to solar, taking away some incentives over time, which make it less attractive to some homeowners to install. She said many towns do not assess for solar panels because “there’s no real data of the impact on market value” of a house.

Mace responded that assessing is simple and he used a simple yardstick to determine the per-panel cost — the building permit for the installation, primarily. He said he then applied this evenly to every single homeowner.

“Our goal is to get to fair market value. Period,” he said. “And that’s based on what the sales figures show us. Every person is assessed $1,000 per panel, across the board. Do I know anything about the size of panels and output? No. I’m just looking at the permit. This is fair across the board. It’s not rocket science.”

He said he has at least one example indicating solar panels add to the value of a house. He said two very similar properties sold on the same street in 2017. One with solar panels sold at 12 percent above market value, and one without panels at 20 percent below. “Same square footage, same size lots.”

“It’s not my job to keep the Revision Energy in business by keeping the cost of solar panels down,” Mace said. “My job is to look at the average, and $1,000 is the average value of a panel. If the market goes up, it will go up; if the market goes down, it will go down. We treat everyone the same. That’s what the law wants. I’m going to continue looking at building permits. When I see it’s at $500 a panel, we’ll change it out.”

The board deliberated for only a few minutes. Each person was allowed to speak and everyone agreed with member Robert Hand, who said, “The assessor’s office is doing a good job. I think the system he has is fair.”

SOYA president Dennis Kepner said he would need to talk with the members to determine if they want to appeal the board’s decision to Superior Court.

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