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Pinellas commercial properties can get green loans, but homes can't

The program would help homeowners, Charlie Justice argued in vain.
Published Nov. 12, 2013

Pinellas County business owners, but not homeowners, will soon be able to apply for loans for solar panels and other green technologies that are paid back through property taxes.

Pinellas County commissioners voted down a proposal to include homeowners in the energy-saving program. Including them would hurt the county's still-recovering real estate market, said Commissioner John Morroni.

Charlie Justice tried in vain to persuade his fellow commissioners to extend the program to homeowners.

"For people who are underwater, this is the only way to improve their homes," he said at a recent meeting. Only Susan Latvala sided with him.

Property Assessed Clean Energy financing, or PACE, allows property owners to borrow money for conservation or clean energy upgrades and pay it back a little at a time, for up to 20 years, through a surcharge on their property tax bill. If a property is sold, repayment obligations are transferred to the new owner.

PACE has been championed by the Obama administration as a way to stimulate the growth of the alternative-energy industry and promote energy conservation.

It has been growing in popularity nationwide. Thirty states and the District of Columbia have passed laws allowing the program, and since June 2011, the number of projects completed with the financing has more than doubled, to at least 168 worth $33 million, according to the New York Times.

But nearly all of the growth has been among businesses. The people it was originally designed to help, homeowners, have been mostly left out because of Federal Housing Finance Agency rules governing Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac financing.

Florida legislators approved implementing PACE in 2010 for energy improvements and hurricane wind protection.

At a Nov. 5 commission meeting, County Administrator Bob LaSala asked commissioners to approve negotiating with the Tampa arm of a national company, Ygrene Energy Fund Florida, to run the PACE program in Pinellas. The California company expanded into Florida in 2011 and launched its first PACE-related programs in South Florida.

LaSala said he also wanted guidance on whether the program should be countywide or just in the unincorporated areas, and whether it should be offered to homeowners and owners of commercial and industrial buildings alike.

The one diehard opponent of the whole program was Commissioner Norm Roche, who warned against using tax bills to collect loan payments for property improvements.

But his colleagues all agreed to make the program countywide and to negotiate with Ygrene. After Justice's motion to include homeowners failed, the commission approved working with Ygrene countywide but extending PACE loans only to commercial properties on a 5-1 vote.

Craig Pittman can be reached at craig@tampabay.com. Follow him @craigtimes on Twitter.

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