Philip Tarantino laughed when he drove past a sign advertising the first solar community on Long Island a couple of years ago. The 52-year-old Stony Brook University assistant dean lived nearby and was familiar with the forested area where the project was under construction.

"I said to my wife, 'What kind of guy builds solar houses in the woods?' " he says.

He changed his mind after visiting the selectively cleared, five-home subdivision in Middle Island. Now, not only is he a true believer, he is also the first occupant of what is believed to be Long Island's first solar community.

Convincing people of the benefits of sustainability has been a long struggle for Art Wilson, the 74-year-old builder for whom the 5-acre project was a personal triumph after years of frustration and failures.

 

A SOLAR COMMUNITY

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His collection of ranch-style homes range in price from $439,000 to a $495,000. Four of the homes have basically the same three-bedroom, three-bathroom arrangement, while the most expensive one has an added bed and bath. Each is highly insulated, with solar panels, which run the meter backward on warm, sunny days and may result in a rebate at year's end. The homes also have geothermal heat pumps for warming and cooling. Things like dishwashers, refrigerators and hot water heaters are all Energy Star rated.

There are no gas and oil bills with the geothermal system, Wilson says, although this does increase the initial cost of a home since a well must be dug to extract heat and cold from the earth.

All the residences have a National Green Building Standard gold rating, which allows a 10-year graduated property tax exemption. This was granted with New York State legislation passed in 2012. The value depends on the amount of property taxes levied on each home and how green they are. Wilson's "gold" homes qualify for a full exemption for four years. Twenty percent is added back after that for the next five years until they are back to the original level at the end of a nine-year period.

 

RECOUPING THE COSTS

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Wilson estimates the green and energy-efficient features added an additional $50,000 to the price of each house, a cost he says could be recouped in about three years.

He plans on adding three similar homes on a tract nearby this summer.

Whether it was the growing awareness of clean energy or all the aforementioned benefits, the homes were a hit from the beginning -- all were presold.

"We still have people calling about them," says Brenden Burns, the listing agent with Shawn Elliott Luxury Homes & Estates.

Wilson and his son, Sean, tried to get a head start on the green movement in 2006 by building three energy-efficient homes in East Moriches. But buyers were more leery then. Plus, the Great Recession loomed. They ended up selling the homes at a loss, Wilson says.

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The customer response was heartening this time in Middle Island, but Wilson still had to deal with other obstacles. The primary one was that most appraisers don't know how to value green homes, a confusion that made banks balk at issuing mortgage loans, Wilson says.

 

MORTGAGE IS STUMBLING BLOCK

For Tarantino, getting a mortgage was "a complete and utter nightmare," he said. "Nobody knew what they were doing."

After 19 months of wrangling that included a thumbs-down from two banks, he finally found one that understood the concept and an appraiser who put an accurate value on the home, allowing the mortgage to be approved.

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Tarantino smiles as he stands in front of his large picture window overlooking the backyard and explains how he was able to keep the thermostat at 65 degrees this past winter and still feel toasty. He and his wife were stunned by another benefit -- a hefty tax rebate they received from the federal and state governments that was enough to cover their closing costs.

Josh Zoia and his wife, Sharon, moved into the solar community in February and actually chose the home because they liked the forest setting. Now, they are beginning to appreciate the residence for its green qualities. For instance, the home's electrical cost should be minimal because of the solar panels, he says.

 

A $56 ELECTRIC BILL

He says he recently learned that his neighbor had a March electric bill of $56.

"I've never looked forward to getting a bill before," he says. "This may be the first time."

The home remained warm this winter, Zoia says, and he can't wait to see how the geothermal system performs in summer.

"So far everything is working perfectly," he says. "Despite the fact that we're saving power and having a low impact on the environment, we're living a completely normal life."