N.S. tax assessor to look at solar properties taxed using ‘forest’ exemption

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NORTH SMITHFIELD – If you have witnessed a North Smithfield Town Council meeting over the past few months, you have no doubt heard it discussed. 

Resident Michael Clifford has sought to bring attention to the tax classification of the properties on Iron Mine Hill Road where Green Development has installed the largest solar array in the state. 

Owned by Ralph and Muriel Ferra, the five lots totaling 315 acres were primarily woodlands prior to installation of the panels following approval of Green’s plan to lease the land several years ago.

In 2015, the Ferras enrolled the lots in Rhode Island’s Farm, Forest & Open Space program, a statewide system designed to preserve land via a real estate tax incentive for those willing to forego profits from development. Tax records show that bills for the family’s five lots dropped a total of $6,732 between 2014 and enrollment in the FFOS program the following year.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management provides guidelines for the program and evaluates the land – including any changes in use – to determine parcels that qualify. Certificates sent to the town of North Smithfield from the Division of Forest Environment – now on file in the town’s land use records – show that between 2015 and 2018, 302 acres of Ferra land qualified for the tax break.

That changed in 2019 when Green began clear-cutting trees for the project, and a certificate from the division – received by former Town Clerk Lillian Silva Scott on December 16 of that year, according to a stamp on the document – states the reduction.

“The division of Forest Environment has examined 315.2 acres of land in North Smithfield in response to the plan approved May 15, 2019,” the document notes, stating that 175.488 acres of the Ferras’ land still qualifies for the exemption.

But town tax records show no corresponding increase in bills for the lots.

In fact, the family’s total tax bill for the five properties actually dropped roughly $200 between 2018 – prior to the building of the large solar farm – and 2020.

Clifford said he noticed that something didn’t look right with assessments on the lots and began asking questions back in May. In the months since, he can be heard in videos of the council meetings during open forum questioning the designation and asking for additional information.

“I’ve been speaking for several months now about the property – the solar farm on Iron Mine Hill Road – and I’ve been questioning how much it’s being taxed and how so much of it still remains in the Farm, Forest & Open Space program,” Clifford said at one meeting in September.

Tax Assessor Jennifer St. George provided Clifford information including field cards on the lots, documents Clifford later shared with NRI NOW. The cards appear to show far more acreage than the RIDEM-certified land designated as “forest,” which Clifford says led him to continue asking questions, and to try to draw attention to the issue.

“I can’t understand where she’s getting her numbers from,” Clifford said. “She said she was 99 percent sure she’d done it correctly.”

Finally, last week, Councilor Kimberly Alves set up a meeting between the resident and St. George, which was also attended by Town Administrator Paul Zwolenski and Finance Director Cynthia DeJesus.

And now, town officials say they’re in agreement that something’s amiss with the bills.

“We all agreed there could possibly be some sort of miscoding from prior to Jennifer coming on board,” Alves said this week. “She is working on that.”

St. George said she plans to first notify the residents of any change in the bills, a determination she expects to make by the end of the week. Alves noted that St. George will also look through other properties in town in the FFOS program.

“It looks like some changes might have dropped off prior to Jennifer getting here,” Alves said.

Town land records show that since 2002, the town has received and filed roughly 35 records related to the FFOS program. St. George served as deputy assessor from 2019 until she was hired to lead the department last year.

It was unclear this week just how much money St. George could assess in new taxes on the lots. Also uncertain is how factors including recent changes in state law regarding the tax classification of land used for renewable energy – or a detailed tax treaty signed between Green and the town of North Smithfield in 2019 – could ultimately affect the outcome.

“Once I have confirmed numbers I will meet with Paul & Cynthia,” St. George said, agreeing to meet with Alves and others on Thursday to review the issue.  

“We are on track with that,” Alves said. “If there’s anything to be made up for, it’s prior to her getting here.”

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6 COMMENTS

  1. Looking at my own parent’s property tax history, and neighboring houses, saw a house of a former town employee, and how their property tax was so low for so many yrs compared to same houses in that area. With the recent evaluation, and now person deceased, I see the house is now at proper tax amount. I found that interesting……
    Kudos to Mr Clifford for not backing down on this issue. He follows things when he sees there are discrepancies all over. His heart is in the right place, to do good will for the town.

  2. They should hire Mike Clifford to review the tax rolls in this town. I would bet he will find quite a few more discrepancies. It probably would be a great return on investment, although I’m sure some of our elected leaders would be looking over their shoulders.

  3. They should also look into the land holdings of the mining operations in town. Most external field cards show a State Code of:
    13 Vacant Land (Residential)
    14 Vacant Land (Commercial/Industrial)

    when they should be using
    07 Industrial (Or Manufacturing) For the record, a couple are coded as 7.

    Land that has been cleared of all vegetation and is being strip mined and quarried is not “Vacant Land”.
    It is replete with vehicles, machinery, sedimentation ponds for the washing of the crushed stone and open storage of sand and stone material in very large piles. Check it out, Google Earth and N Smithfield’s GIS database is quite informative.

    “Vacant Land” is unused and hopefully in a natural state, not in a state if use and disrupted to the point it will need remediation when the current use is no longer viable.

    Code Description
    1 Single Family (Or Mobile Home with Deeded Lot)
    2 2-5 Family; 2-3F (Woonsocket); 2F (W Warwick)
    3 Apartment Building (6+ Units)
    4 Combination (Mixed Use)
    5 Commercial 1 (Max $100,000 Assessment)
    6 Commercial 2 (More than $100,000 Assessment)
    7 Industrial (Or Manufacturing)
    8 Estate (Luxury Residence)
    9 Farm
    10 Utility and Railroad
    11 Seasonal and Beach
    12 Other Improved Land
    13 Vacant Land (Residential)
    14 Vacant Land (Commercial/Industrial)
    15 Vacant Land (Other)
    21 Residential Building on Leased Land (Personal Property)
    22 Commercial Building on Leased Land (Personal Property)
    23 Condo (Residential)
    24 Condo (Commercial)
    25 Condo (Industrial)
    26 Condo (Time Share)
    29 Commercial Building on Leased Land (Personal Property)
    30 3-Family (W Warwick); 4-5 Family (Woonsocket)
    33 Farm-Forest-Open Space Land
    40 4-Family (W Warwick)
    70 Cemetery
    71 Charitable
    72 Church
    73 Ex-Charter
    74 Federal
    75 Hospital
    76 Library
    78 Municipal
    79 School
    80 State
    82 Vote of City
    83 44-3-9 STB
    84 Amtrak NRR
    85 Act of Legislation
    97 Mobile Home (Without Lot – Personal Property Only)
    98 Commercial Building on Leased Land

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