GLOUCESTER – City Council is considering seeking a financial contribution from the city’s biggest company in return for allowing it to alter the horizon with wind turbines tall enough to be visible almost everywhere on Cape Ann.
The issue was raised by Councilor Jason Grow as councilors inched toward a vote Tuesday night on permitting Varian Semiconductor Equipment Associates to build what would be the tallest turbines in the state.
While declaring himself a fan of wind power, Grow argued that councilors “have got to ask what’s in it for the city of Gloucester.”
Grow noted the city negotiated a tax relief agreement with Varian on a plant expansion in the late 1990s that forgave $291,000 in taxes over a nine-year period. Now that Varian wants to put up wind turbines that jut high above the natural contours of the city, Grow wanted to know why the city should not turn the tables and receive money from Varian.
Grow suggested $100,000.
In the more than two years of hearings on the precedent-setting proposal, it was the first discussion about attaching a price tag to the permit.
Rick Johnson, Varian’s director of facilities, and J. Michael Faherty, its permitting attorney, reminded the council of Varian’s generosity during the 30-year marriage between corporation and community.
The company gave the city the land it needed to extend the industrial park’s access road, allowing the park to expand.
“Without our help,” Johnson said, park expansion “would not have happened. We didn’t ask for anything in return.”
Johnson and Faherty also noted that the publicly traded company employs 375 Gloucester residents with a combined salary of $22 million.
The company, which realized a $94 million profit from $730 million in revenues last year paid $204,503 in real estate and personal property taxes in 2006, according to assessor’s records. The amount would have been higher except for state law exempting manufacturing equipment from taxation. Under another state law to encourage development of wind power, the turbines would also be exempt from local taxation.
The turbines have been described by Varian officials as essential to maintaining world leadership in the manufacture of capital equipment used to make computer chips.
“Job creation starts with job retention,” Faherty said.
Over the objections of two councilors, Michael McLeod and John “Gus” Foote, the debate was suspended until October with Grow’s idea left hanging.
Arguments poured in from both sides yesterday.
Mayor John Bell and McLeod said they believed it was wrong to dun a company that means so much to Gloucester, while Councilors Bruce Tobey and Walter Peckham sided with Grow.
“I support (Grow) on this,” said Peckham. “The city will have to live with (the turbines) every single day.”
Council President James Destino did not go that far, but said asking Varian to make “a payment in lieu of taxes” is a “discussion that we should have.”
But Bell cautioned that the council “has to be very careful” if it chooses to “proceed down a dangerous road.”
Bell questioned whether a request for a mitigation payment was even legal, as did Faherty and Johnson.
Johnson said the “mitigation” called for in the city’s wind turbine zoning ordinance refers to designing and siting turbines to minimize visual impact – not to a payment to compensate the city for any aesthetic degradation.
He declined to speculate on Varian’s response should the council decide to seek a financial payment.
The towers would rise nearly 500 feet from Varian’s world headquarters at Blackburn Industrial Park to net the company more than $1.6 million a year in projected cash and energy savings on an $11 million investment. The company’s annual bill this year from the National Grid is projected to be $2.3 million.
The location at the island’s high point is ideal. Bob Shatten, Varian’s wind technology consultant, said winds above Blackburn, averaging 15 mph, are among the strongest and most dependable in New England.
By Richard Gaines, Staff writer
20 September 2007
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