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Firm seeks tax break for wind power plan

ELLSWORTH, Maine – The Hancock County commissioners on Tuesday heard a request from First Wind for tax incentives on its proposed wind power project in a portion of the county’s Unorganized Territory.

According to David Fowler, development manager for First Wind, the project is the first phase of a proposed wind power project on Bull Hill in Eastbrook and on Bull and Heifer hills in Township 16. The first phase would include 19 turbines with a 1.8-megawatt capacity each in the township.

Although permitting for the project falls under the purview of the Maine Land Use Regulation Commission, the county commissioners, as overseers of Unorganized Territory in Hancock County, would be the ones to approve any tax incentive plan for the project.

Joan Fortin, an attorney with Bernstein Shur representing First Wind at Tuesday’s meeting, said the company is proposing a tax increment financing plan for the project.

Tax increment financing is an economic development tool approved by the state that allows municipalities and counties to provide tax incentives for certain projects.

Under a TIF agreement, a portion of the property taxes paid to the state on the land and equipment would be returned to the county. The county then would share those funds with the company based on a negotiated percentage. Provisions in the TIF agreement also would determine how the county and the company could spend the money.

The TIF, according to Fowler, would help the company reduce its costs and could be an incentive to investors interested in backing the project financially.

The law requires that the county’s share of the funds be used for economic development. Although the law provides for a broad range of eligible projects, Fortin said, the funds must be used within the Unorganized Territory.

“That can be challenging,” she said. “On the flip side, however, those funds would go straight to the state and not come back [to the county] without a TIF.”

She noted, however, that the funds would not be limited to Township 16 where the proposed wind power project would be located. The county’s share of the TIF funds, she said, could be used for projects in any of the county’s Unorganized Territory, but could not be allocated for projects in other parts of the county or to reduce county taxes.

The state permitting process also requires wind power developers pay “tangible benefits” to the host community, or in this case the county. The relatively new law requires that the developer provide $4,000 per turbine per year to the host community, according to Fortin.

First Wind would be required to develop a plan with the county commissioners for the allocation of those funds. Although there was some question concerning how those funds could be used, Fortin said she believed they could be used for county projects outside of the Unorganized Territory.

Commissioners took no action on either proposal Tuesday and did not indicate whether they supported the TIF concept. They accepted First Wind’s offer to provide more detailed information on the TIF and tangible benefit process. Fowler said he would like to meet with the commissioners again, possibly in November after the company has submitted its application to LURC. At that time, he said, First Wind could present a TIF proposal to the commissioners as a starting point for negotiations.

If all goes well, Fowler said, the permitting process could be completed late next summer, and construction on the project could begin by this time next year.