By Peter Taber
(Created: Thursday, September 7, 2006 4:05 PM EDT)
Backers of a $10 million wind energy project for Beaver Ridge in Freedom scored a victory Thursday when townspeople rejected a moratorium effort proposed by two of the town’s three selectmen. The vote was 79-44.
As a result, a representative of Portland-based Competitive Energy Services (CES) is expected to appear before the Freedom Planning Board Thursday of this week seeking a permit under the town’s recently enacted commercial development review ordinance. According to CES executive Andrew Price, the company has been unable to place its order with the manufacturer for the three proposed tower-mounted turbine units until it secures town permitting. There is about a year’s lead-time until the units would be delivered, he said.
Selectmen Steve Bennett and Lynn Hadyniak stirred controversy the previous week when they voted to hold Freedom’s third special town meeting this year, a gathering to consider their 180-day moratorium proposal. They argued the new development review ordinance enacted Aug. 7 has deficiencies that first need to be corrected. Selectman Tim Biggs voted against holding the meeting and did not sign the warrant.
Bennett claimed broad-reaching waiver language was added to the ordinance draft at the last moment giving the seven planning board members virtually unlimited license to ignore standards or impose new ones of their own. At Thursday’s special town meeting, he also raised questions about the absence of a provision for a Tax Increment Financing (TIF) arrangement to shield local property owners from the effects on school and county taxes that would be created by adding nearly 30 percent to the town’s valuation.
After Richard Kershaw made the motion that the article not pass, moratorium proponent Carrie Bennett, who is related to Steve Bennett by marriage, offered a presentation in which she first acknowledged the strong feelings the project proposal has touched off in town. “I know everyone in this room has a lot of emotion going on, whether it be frustration and anger with process, anger with individuals, anger at how long this has been going on,” she addressed the gathering packed into the Dirigo Grange Hall. “I think it’s unfortunate.”
No one is being asked to stop the project, Bennett said. Rather, her concern was “how the ordinance sits right now gives the planning board free rein.” The board members can increase the demands of the ordinance, she asserted, or they can waive any of the rules and standards they see fit without consulting with anyone.
Furthermore, Bennett claimed, “The abutting home owners, they’re going to lose their property values. Some are going to lose 10 percent; some are going to lose 20 percent. Some are going to lose 30 percent. Some people won’t be able to afford to sell their properties if they don’t want to live like this. So what they will have to look to is the town to protect them”¦if we have noise restrictions we can’t uphold and this ordinance can be waived by the planning board completely and those people get stuck in homes that they cannot sell, they have no options to move away from where they don’t want to live by and they can’t look to their own town for protection.”
Referring to one estimate of the tax savings a typical property owner in Freedom would stand to enjoy with the fully realized project at Beaver Ridge added to the tax base, Bennett said, “I don’t see how a $300 tax break to any individual is worth taking away 30 percent of a person’s value and then saying we’re not even going to protect you from the nuisance.” Noise, lightning strikes and a “strobe” effect are all aspects of the nuisance the 260-foot-high towers would create, she maintained.
Although she herself is not an abutter to the Beaver Ridge site, Bennett said she certainly hoped if she were in that position “I could look to my own community and know that people cared enough about my rights and what I have for my home and my ability to enjoy it that they would support me and simply ask for protection.”
“You can still have your wind project,” Bennett said, adding the moratorium “does not make it go away. All you’re doing is protecting these families. This man, his wife, his children, that man, his wife and many, many others.”
But Beaver Ridge abutter Heidi Brugger, who has been at the forefront of local efforts to encourage the wind power project, countered that the moratorium proposal needed to be defeated because it “silences the public good” and “undermines” a legitimate existing process.
“The people of this town have made their voices heard,” Brugger said. She cited the petition of support she helped circulate in early May signed by 209 of the town’s approximately 650 residents, a straw vote arranged by the selectmen that was predominantly positive and the binding vote at the Aug. 7 special town meeting at which the development review ordinance with a section specifically addressing wind power projects won solid endorsement from citizens.
“But this isn’t about wind power any more,” Brugger continued. “It’s about political power in the town of Freedom, Maine.” She said the town engaged in a process that included full public participation in workshops and the voters approved the newly written ordinance.
“We need to vote now to say honor that process,” Brugger said. “Let the planning board review the CES permit application. For the selectmen to say the ordinance we passed was inadequate to prevent serious harm is opinion and it’s a minority opinion so far. It’s not fact. For them to ask you to surrender your voice and your vote to their parental authority is the same as them saying they don’t trust the planning board and they don’t trust the townspeople of Freedom, that they know better than we know. To do anything less than to reject the article is to turn Freedom into a dictatorship of the selectmen.”
Enthusiastic applause and a loud interjected “amen” interrupted her as Brugger wound up her remarks. “Stand up for your rights,” she urged the gathering. “Vote down the moratorium.”
Acknowledging that “some of you are not too happy with me tonight,” Steve Bennett explained his position in joining with almost everyone else in voting to adopt the development review ordinance. “We had only two choices,” he said. “Vote for the ordinance as it was or vote for no ordinance and the next day see the code enforcement officer issue a building permit to CES. Those were the only two choices Aug. 7. Tonight you have a choice, adopt a moratorium for up to six months for a special ordinance committee to review this.”
But Bennett ran into trouble with moderator Don Berry when he sought to explain the genesis for the ordinance, how he was present at the planning board workshop when the new waiver language was introduced and that there were not enough copies of the rewritten draft to go around.
“That was added at the very last minute,” Bennett protested. “At least two–I only spoke to two–planning board members were not even aware that that wording was added”¦I wasn’t aware it was there. The selectmen weren’t aware it was there. So we have an ordinance that allows a handful of people in town the right to waive any understanding, any of the rules, they want for any reason that they deem valid.” When Bennett asked, “Do you want to give any group of people in town that power?” Berry interrupted him to say his remarks were “not germane to this article right here.”
“I’m going to stop this,” Berry said. “You had a town meeting in which the people of your town passed that ordinance. That public document was available to everyone. Is that true?” There were murmurs of assent. “With all those articles in it, all of those quote unquote changes that you’re talking about within it?” There was further agreement. “Therefore,” Berry concluded, “the topic here is the creation of a moratorium, not a discussion about passing something that no one knew because they did know. So I’m sorry to have to stop you here but if you’re continuing to talk about action of the town that has already taken place you cannot do that.”
“The reason we’re here is to make a decision on a moratorium,” Bennett replied. “If you will not let me speak as to why we need the moratorium–“
“You haven’t focused, sir, as to why we need the moratorium,” Berry interrupted. “If you will address that you can continue speaking. By going back and relating to a document that was passed by the people of your town is not relevant. You may continue.”
“Well, you know, I think you’ve just probably cut me short here,” Bennett said. “There are many sections that need to be reviewed.” He said under the moratorium a special ordinance committee would conduct this review and make recommended changes. “That’s the purpose of the moratorium,” he said.
” No,” said Berry. “Your town passed this ordinance? Your town has a planning board. correct? Therefore, what we’re dealing with is the creation of this moratorium period of time. Now, what your job here is to convince the people here why without going back and talking about an article that’s already been passed, why you want to create this moratorium, so, if you would, address that issue as to why you want to create the moratorium without going back and talking simply about an action the town’s already done.”
Bennett asked if he could talk about taxes. “Under my limit,” Berry said.
The selectman pointed out that there is no language in the ordinance about TIFs. He said he talked “with all kinds of people on both side of the fence who think the town of Freedom would be crazy to not consider a TIF for a project of this size.” As matters currently stand, he said, “If CES gets approval from the planning board they’re going to walk away from that meeting with no other obligation on their part.”
Municipal officials in the town of Mars Hill where a wind power project is currently under development with 23 turbines being built would not have approved that project without a TIF to protect local property owners,” Bennett reported. He explained that Mars Hill will be getting half a million dollars a year for the next 20 years from the wind project developers in that town, yet because a TIF agreement is in place there local school and county taxes will remain “level.”
Bennett told the gathering that as of July 1 Freedom has had to come up with an additional $5,000 a month to pay its SAD 3 assessment because three years ago the selectmen in office reported a $35 million valuation, an increase of $7 million. He estimated that without a TIF the effect on the school assessment from the Beaver Ridge project’s $10 million valuation will be an increase from the current $384,000 a year to $500,000.
“This is not the great windfall in taxes you think it is, believe me,” Bennett said. “If we had a TIF at least we’re in charge and we can make sure our school and county assessments don’t go through the roof. But as it stands now this ordinance has no provision. CES will walk away with an approval on these wind turbines and we’ll have no recourse to force them to agree with a TIF. They won’t want it. They have no incentive.” Furthermore, he said, “These turbines are not going to provide power to the town of Freedom. They’re not going to lower your CMP bills. You’re not even going to get any jobs out of this. We need to do this the right way. This ordinance does not do it the right way.”
Planning board chairman Nancy Bailey-Farrar spoke briefly in a bid to correct what she regarded as a distortion of the record. “What Mr. Bennett has said about the discussion of the waiver part of the ordinance not being mentioned is totally untrue,” she asserted. “It was mentioned. The changes were made in discussion by the planning board members and one of the select people. It came before the planning board. Yes, there was a little confusion at the beginning. We discussed the changes that were in it and it was voted on unanimously.”
Discussion continued. Carrie Bennett raised concerns about the potential for CES to go bankrupt and leave the town with a cost it can’t afford of removing the turbines. As a limited liability company, she said, the physical power generating facilities are the only assets the town could go after.
“Why are all these issues coming up now,” one man asked.
Ron Price, the farmer who would lease the Beaver Ridge land to CES, said he attended most of the planning board meetings that dealt with wind power. “I have to say the people that were opposed to this project concentrated their efforts on all the bad aspects of it. There was never any positive effort to see about developing a TIF. This is the first time I’ve ever heard Mr. Bennett mention a TIF publicly. If he had worked and got in behind the thing to say let’s see if we can make the thing work for the best interests of the town we might have had TIF language in that ordinance.”
Price pointed out the board can still address this matter when CES’s application is received. He also noted that power generation equipment is not depreciated but rather taxed according to the power produced. “If it goes in at $10 million,” he said, “it will probably be worth $10 million 20 or 30 years from now.”
Jay Guber, the code enforcement officer, said the town was long aware of the proposed project and it was at the direction of the selectmen themselves that he investigated the arrangement at Mars Hill and reported back to them what he learned including that town’s TIF agreement with wind power developers.
Guber said he had to go into the hospital while the ordinance was being drafted. When he got out, he said, he was “outraged” to learn that no provision was included for a TIF. “The same person who is bringing that up now is the same person who wrote that document and never put it in,” he said.
Bennett defended himself, saying he went to the planning board in May and asked to give a presentation on TIFs the following week. The day before the board was to meet again, he said, “I was uninvited.” At the time he thought he should recuse himself because of a perceived conflict of interest. But after talking with a lawyer, he thought differently. “He said you have absolutely nothing to gain from this. Read the Maine statutes, which I did. And that’s when I changed my mind about dealing with this.”
“Once again, that’s not true,” said Bailey-Farrar. She said the board asked that Bennett not make his presentation “because we thought he had a conflict of interest and should recuse himself from this.” She said the board did ask the other selectmen and they declined.
After 35 minutes of discussion and debate, a motion was introduced to move the question. It easily gained the necessary two-thirds majority.
In the only other item of business, voters approved raising $3,445.83 to pay town employee withholding taxes owed to the federal government along with interest and penalties. In answer to a question of hadn’t the town taken care of this matter before, Hilary Fleming, the town treasurer, explained that when this past March the town paid off back taxes, interest and penalties from 2003, she asked the IRS if anything else was owed. Fleming said she was told certain reporting forms for some months in the second and third quarters of 2004 were missing. After these were submitted, she said, the IRS found discrepancies and last week an agent visited the town office with details of what is owed. For the second quarter, she said, $1,227.47 in withholding is owed while the following quarter $53.54 in withholding is owed. Penalties on these two amounts are $405.06 and $1,335.30, respectively. Interest rounds out the balance. Fleming said the IRS may negotiate the penalties down but the town must first pay up to be considered. This money would be reimbursed.
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