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Jim Kenyon: Church Shows True Spirit of Giving

  • Valley News columnist Jim Kenyon in West Lebanon, N.H., on September 15, 2016. (Valley News - Geoff Hansen) Copyright Valley News. May not be reprinted or used online without permission. Send requests to permission@vnews.com.


Sunday, April 01, 2018

The Abundant Life Church is by no means well-off. With only about 25 members, the Lebanon church gets by on a shoestring budget. Its pastor, who doesn’t take a salary, lives on the church’s second floor.

So when a neighbor inquired recently about buying an undeveloped half-acre of the church’s 4-acre parcel, how could it refuse?

The half-acre has a market value of $25,000.

A sizable sum that could be put toward reducing the church’s mortgage. Or cover the church’s heating and electric bills for a couple of years, said Abundant Life’s pastor, the Rev. Bruce Jerome. It might even be used, joked Jerome, to pay its pastor a small remuneration.

This winter, Jerome met with his small congregation to go over the proposal from its next-door neighbor on Rudsboro Road, just off Route 4 near the Enfield town line: Mascoma Meadows, a resident-owned manufactured home community, wanted the land to build a solar array.

Mascoma Meadows is a collection of aging mobile homes, with carports and basketball hoops. The city has assessed many of them for property tax purposes at under $40,000. Residents, a few of whom belong to the church, range from couples with young children to retirees on fixed incomes. They have owned and managed the 50-home park since forming a cooperative and buying what was formerly LeBrun’s Mobile Home Park in 2008.

Mascoma Meadows planned to finance the land purchase through the New Hampshire Community Loan Fund, which lends money for projects that benefit “traditionally underserved people.”

Should we make the deal? church members asked their pastor.

No, Jerome answered.

Instead, he suggested, Abundant Life should just give the land to Mascoma Meadows. That’s right, for free.

A few parishioners shot him puzzled looks. But in the end, church members voted unanimously to donate the land. “I’m very proud of my folks,” said Jerome, a former part-time police officer in Canaan who has been in the ministry for more than 20 years. “It’s what neighbors are supposed to do. It’s not like we were giving the land to people who had oodles of money.”

How did the idea of building a solar array at Mascoma Meadows come about?

Vermont Law School’s Energy Clinic, which gives students hands-on experience in developing solar energy projects, deserves the credit. Part of the clinic’s mission is to expand solar to low-income communities, said Christa Shute, a VLS graduate who is now a global energy fellow at the school.

Last year, the Energy Clinic approached ROC-NH which stands for Resident-Owned Communities, about potential solar array sites. The clinic identified five ROCs, of which there are roughly 125 in the state, that might be suitable. Mascoma Meadows was the first to respond.

“They’ve been super engaged from the start,” Shute said.

On Wednesday, Shute and three VLS students met with the park’s governing board at where else? Abundant Life, which is part of the worldwide evangelical Church of God that got its start more than 125 years ago in Tennessee.

The Energy Clinic recommended that the park work with ReVision Energy, a solar installer with offices in New Hampshire, Maine and Massachusetts, on developing the project.

Solar projects have typically been “only available to people who can afford the out-of-pocket costs,” said Jack Ruderman, ReVision Energy’s director of community solar initiatives, during his presentation at Wednesday’s meeting. “Solar should be available to everyone.”

ReVision Energy, which has been in business for 15 years, is proposing a 348-solar panel array on the half-acre. The panels, which aren’t much wider than a medium-sized, flat-screen TV, stand roughly 12 feet high.

Electricity generated from the 100-kilowatt system will flow into the local power grid. One reason for selecting the site was its proximity to power lines, Shute said..

Later this month, she expects to bring the proposal to the Lebanon Planning Board. And there there’s still the no-small-matter of securing financing for a project that is expected to cost between $275,000 and $300,000.

VLS is applying for a grant on the park’s behalf from the New Hampshire Public Utilities Commission, which administers the state’s Renewable Energy Fund. Recipients of the grants, which range from $50,000 to $200,000, will be announced in May.

Other funding options that could be in play are private investors and the leveraging of federal tax credits, which could reduce the cost by 30 percent, Shute said.

The proposed solar array won’t reduce residents’ electric bills. Instead Mascoma Meadows’ homeowners will use the income generated from the array to lower their lot fees. Currently, each homeowner pays $395 a month.

So far 36 homeowners — nearly 75 percent of park residents — have signed up to receive the savings. It’s still to early to estimate how much the savings will be, but “residents will directly benefit from the project,” Shute assured me.

Lynnett Wessells, a 73-year-old retired bank teller, and her husband, David, have lived at the park since 1968. Wessells, treasurer of the co-op’s governing board, said when Jerome announced the church’s donation, residents were blown away.

“People were crying,” she said. “You know there are good people in the world, you just don’t see it like this too often.”

Jim Kenyon can be reached at jkenyon@vnews.com.