By Andy Kekacs
FREEDOM (Sep 1): Freedom voters once again supported the construction of wind turbines on Beaver Ridge. In a 79-44 vote Thursday, residents turned down a moratorium that would have prevented town officials from approving the project.
The developer of the wind farm said the company will present an application to the Planning Board in the near future. He described the commercial review ordinance that was approved three weeks ago as “tough but fair.”
“We don’t see anything that would preclude us from submitting an application,” said Richard Silkman, managing partner of Competitive Energy Services. “We think we can meet all of the requirements.”
The second-floor meeting room at the Dirigo Grange Hall was packed for the special town meeting, and voters spilled out into the foyer. There was sharp disagreement about the most basic facts – whether the Planning Board had banned Selectman Steve Bennett from speaking at one of its meetings, for example, or whether selectmen failed to bring forward a timely proposal for a special tax district involving the windmills.
In the end, however, voters never got to debate the merits of the moratorium. Moderator Don Berry ruled that Bennett could not discuss the recently enacted Freedom Commercial Development Review Ordinance, even though the moratorium sought to prevent town officials from using that ordinance to review the wind project until a new committee had a chance to address what Bennett claimed were flaws in the regulations.
“You haven’t spoken as to why [Freedom] needs the moratorium,” Berry told Bennett. “”¦You need to address the issue without discussing the [commercial development review] ordinance that the town has already passed.”
Many in the audience seem surprised by the moderator’s action. Under a section of the moratorium titled “Necessity,” the warrant article stated, “The Town of Freedom’s existing Commercial Development Review Ordinance is inadequate to prevent serious public harm from Wind Energy Facilities “¦”
Furthermore, the warrant stated the purpose of the moratorium was to provide “time for the Town of Freedom to consider and enact ordinances or amend existing ordinances so that the public interest is protected “¦”
Even so, Berry insisted he made the right call in limiting Bennett’s discussion of the commercial development ordinance. “He was discussing things that were not relevant to the motion on the floor,” said the moderator. “Those things were already existing “¦ and the town was not voting on them.”
Bennett was left, literally, speechless.
“I was dumbfounded,” said Bennett. “That’s the reason we are here [to debate the need for the moratorium.] It’s not fair, but I don’t know how you challenge it.”
Meanwhile, there were some lively exchanges between Bennett and Planning Board Chairperson Nancy Bailey Farrar. Bennett said he was deeply concerned about the impact the wind project would have on taxes in Freedom. He blasted the Planning Board for failing to consider a tax-increment financing district in its discussion of the commercial development ordinance.
In essence, a TIF would allow the town to exclude the assessed value of the proposed wind farm from the calculation of county and school district taxes. It would also give Freedom a way to negotiate financial and other concessions from the developer, and to dedicate some or all of the new tax revenues generated by the development to a variety of public purposes.
Bennett said he had a letter from Farrar in which the Planning Board told him he was not welcome at a meeting where tax issues would be discussed. “I offered to come to that Planning Board meeting and speak,” he said. “But the board told me to recuse myself “¦ and I would not be allowed to speak.”
Farrar said Bennett’s charge was false. “We invited the selectmen to come to the meeting, but asked that Steve not present [their proposals for addressing tax issues in commercial developments.]”
Bailey sent a copy of the Planning Board’s letter to Bennett, which reads in part: “The topic for our planning board workshop on June 8, 2006, is centered on property values, tax implications and assessments. As the selectpersons in Freedom act as the Town of Freedom assessors, we would like one of you to be present at this particular meeting to address this issue with us and the public …”
The letter continued: ” “¦ it has been brought to our attention that perhaps Steve Bennett, in lieu of his definite conflict of interest regarding the CES application, may not be the best choice to address these issues on behalf of the assessors and the Board of Selectpersons.”
About 45 minutes into the meeting, a motion was made to cut off debate and vote on the question. Voters filed to the front of the room to cast ballots. The moratorium was defeated easily.
Afterward, residents appropriated $3,445.83 to cover withholding taxes for town employees that were not forwarded to the IRS on time, along with interest and penalties. One of the only questions asked before the amount was approved in a show of hands: “Has the town figured out how to pay [withholding taxes] on time yet?”
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