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Erie County Legislature approves emergency sale of airspace for solar farm

The Erie County Legislature Thursday – over the objections of three Republican lawmakers – approved the emergency sale of some airspace above a piece of property that the county owns.

Lawmakers agreed to sell the property for $1 to Amherst-based Solar Liberty, as part of its development of a 10-acre solar panel farm on the site of a former landfill in the Town of Tonawanda. The property is located just to the west of Military Road and just north of the Youngmann Memorial Highway.

The project is aimed at helping the town reduce its electricity bill.

Recently, Solar Liberty was made aware that a portion of the property it seeks to use is owned by the county.

Lawmakers said they were informed Thursday by the administration of County Executive Mark C. Poloncarz of the need for the emergency sale.

Minority Leader Joseph C. Lorigo objected to the sale and made a motion that the matter be sent to the Legislature's Energy and Environment Committee for further review. It received support only from Legislators Lynne Dixon and John Mills. Republican Edward A. Rath III abstained from voting.

Lorigo noted that a lawyer for Solar Liberty warned lawmakers during its caucus meeting Thursday that if the transfer of property was not done this year, the company would lose out on $9 million in federal tax credits.

"We don't have to approve this today. We have another month and a half left before 2019 is over," Lorigo said.

"We have the time to negotiate some type of payment for the easement," Lorigo said.

The majority of the Legislature appeared to disagree.

"What we are doing here is giving an easement, in perpetuity, for a developer of solar panels," Lorigo said.

Lorigo said renewable energy fields have razor-thin profit margins.

"They're not making money on the solar panels. They're making money on the tax credits," he said.

"If we approve this easement without any consideration for Erie County taxpayers, we are, in effect, giving this developer a $9 million benefit and receiving nothing in return. The Town of Tonawanda will be receiving cheaper power, but that's the Town of Tonawanda, and they're really paying for these federal tax credits in the form of federal taxes to begin with. So we're just taking money out of one pocket and putting it in the other," Lorigo said.

He motioned to amend the resolution to approve the easement for $1 million. "We should get some consideration for a $9 million benefit to a private developer," Lorigo said.

Legislator Kevin Hardwick, who represents part of the Town of Tonawanda, said without the tax credits, the project wouldn't happen.

"Without the tax credits that are being offered to clean up the Huntley site and the Tonawanda Coke site in the future, those projects won't happen," Hardwick said.

"To charge someone $1 million for airspace over a narrow piece of county property, I think is a bit excessive, a bit confiscatory and, quite frankly, a bit ridiculous," he said.

"I think that we should be supportive of this kind of project. I think it inures to the benefit, not only of the people of Tonawanda, but all people of Erie County," Hardwick added.

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