Sam Nickels -- March 9th, 2011
Dull? Not last night’s Harrisonburg City Council meeting. Thirty people turned out and stayed two hours to support various initiatives, including an exemption from a solar tax, and the addition of the Northend Greenway to the City’s Bicycle and Pedestrian Plan.
In addressing the issue of tax exemptions for certified solar energy equipment, Harrisonburg City Manager Kurt Hodgen presented two proposed ordinances from City staff, one for 20% and the other for 100% exemption. After extensive and byzantine debate, in which the City Manager expressed uncertainty about why the guiding law was passed by the Commonwealth Assembly, Council members batted around the length of exemption from life to 10 years and finally back up to 20 years (the term required by a local bank to provide further capital for the 2nd phase of Eastern Mennonite University’s solar project), and Councilmen agreed that if they passed the exemption it would be best for city residents not to apply for it, consensus seemed to grow in support of the 100% exemption.
Then Councilman Ted Byrd astutely raised the issue of fairness. If one business is allowed to apply for release from taxation, then all should be offered the same opportunity to come before the Council and request their machinery tax be exempted. However, Chenault argued that this exemption was not only for EMU and it’s partner, Staunton-based Secure Futures LLC, but for any business that invested in solar equipment. Degner expressed his belief that it is important for Harrisonburg to make a statement that the City encourages and supports alternative energy development.
Byrd was not convinced, and became the lone dissenting vote. The ordinance providing 100% exemption for 20 years passed its first of two required votes, 4-1. The ordinance reads, in part: “Effective on…July 1, 2010…certified solar equipment, facilities or devices…are hereby declared to be a separate class of property and shall be exempt from taxation at one hundred percent (100%) of its assessed value for the first twenty (20) years of its useful life.”
Today Jeff Mellott reported in the Daily News-Record on a City staff report related to the ordinance.
Council’s pending final approval of the ordinance would make Harrisonburg the 16th locality to offer the exemption. Of the 15 localities that now provide tax exemptions for solar energy development, 11 provide a 100 percent tax break for five years, according to a Harrisonburg staff report. Harrisonburg City Manager Kurt Hodgen said the city’s exemption would only be considered by request and does not apply to residences. The ordinance, as it reads, will put Harrisonburg in the forefront of state localities for support of solar development.
The proposed multi-use bike and pedestrian pathway, known now as the “Northend Greenway,” would wind its way from Eastern Mennonite University down through properties that line Blacks Run to the downtown area. The $1 million project is being proposed and funded by a small nonprofit that is new to the Harrisonburg area, New Community Project (NCP), which came out of the Brethren Church and focuses its mission on “creation care.” It is anticipated NCP will request that the City of Harrisonburg be responsible for long-term maintenance of the pathway. Tom Benevento, local coordinator for NCP, stated the pathway will create “connectivity among diverse neighborhoods, provide off-road safe transportation for children and families, and be a beautiful gift for the City.” Councilman Dave Wiens asked how it would be paid for.
Benevento responded “through major donors, grants, a public campaign, in-kind contributions, and institutions and government, but mostly community funded.” “That’s what I wanted to hear,” said Wiens. Councilman Kai Degner and Wiens both expressed strong support for the project. Council members noted the extraordinary work and coordination by NCP with city staff. Charlie Chenault touchingly expressed special praise for Thanh Dang and her “collegial style that moves projects forward.” Dang is the City’s Public Works Planner.
In other business, the requests from Doug Kline and Velocity Property Group for special use permit and variance requests for the lot at the corner of Foley Road and Ridgeville Lane were narrowly approved, three to two.
The Chamber of Commerce presented its work on Vision2020: A Community Vision. “A community of unparalleled quality of life, where natural beauty, friendly interdependent relationship and diverse cultural, economic and educational opportunities exist.” Tom Mendez, former chair of the Chamber, said the vision was the work of 150 community leaders over a two year period, and he encouraged the City Council to officially vote in support for the vision, just as the Chamber is asking all area towns, counties and cities to provide unified support of the vision. Councilmen, some of whom had been involved with the process, praised the work of the Chamber for its focus on diversity and its contribution to the development of comprehensive plans for localities. Councilmen then referred the document to the City Planning Commission to review and consider it in the further development of the City’s comprehensive planning process, and expressed intent to vote soon in support of Vision 2020.