SKOWHEGAN – People who live in the unorganized territories of Somerset County will not see millions of dollars worth of economic development projects in the coming years.
Somerset County Commissioners said “no” on Wednesday evening to a wind project developer’s proposal to form a tax-increment financing district, or TIF, in Mayfield Township.
Their decision marks the first refusal in Maine of a request by a wind project developer to form a TIF. It’s also the first time developer First Wind, which has projects across the United States, has been denied a TIF.
Commissioners have been hesitant to support the commercial wind project and associated TIF, pointing to what they believe will be negative impacts on tourism and the landscape.
Residents of townships commended the commissioners’ decision, but an economic development expert shook his head in disappointment over the loss of millions of dollars that could have been used for projects in the unorganized territories.
A representative of Boston-based First Wind said the project will still continue. A TIF district would have captured the increases in property values in the area of First Wind’s planned wind development in Mayfield, located north of Harmony. The additional tax value the first year was estimated at more than $1.35 million, with the amount to decrease slightly in subsequent years.
A negotiated percentage of the money would have gone to First Wind. The rest, overseen by commissioners, would have gone to economic development projects in the county’s unorganized territories, such as for jobs training, building cross-country ski trails, expanding broadband access, creating a revolving loan fund, establishing a regional bus system or improving the Old Canada Road Scenic Byway.
Bingham Wind Power LLC, backed by First Wind, wants to place 52 wind turbines on ridges in the town of Bingham, in the Somerset County township of Mayfield and in the Piscataquis County township of Blanchard. The company intends to submit its permit applications in the spring.
The greatest number of turbines, 32, are planned for Mayfield, over which commissioners have authority. Any TIF arrangements in Bingham or Blanchard are not affected by the commissioners’ decision.
Commissioners expressed frustration Wednesday at the process of forming a TIF. Commissioner Lynda Quinn said she felt commissioners were between “a rock and a hard place,” saying they can’t negotiate a TIF unless they agree to one, but they don’t want to agree to a TIF unless they negotiate the details.
Commissioner Gerald York said he worried about how a TIF would affect the tourism industry. “It’s my opinion it could potentially be a detriment to the tourism industry, and fish and game in particular, if we vote for a TIF at this time,” he said.
They would need to know how the money would be spread evenly throughout the county “before I’d even consider granting a TIF,” York said.
First Wind had asked commissioners two weeks ago to delay indefinitely a decision on whether to form a TIF. Citing the lack of a “strong and committed partnership” between developer and commissioners, First Wind attorney Joan Fortin wrote in an e-mail Jan. 6 that commissioners and the county community “may not be ready at this time” to decide on a TIF.
The goal in tabling a decision was also to allow commissioners “more time to gather input from the Somerset County community at large, and to consider specific economic development projects that might benefit the residents and businesses of Somerset County,” Fortin wrote in an additional e-mail Wednesday.
Commissioners were surprised at the request, saying they were still in the process of gathering information in order to make a decision. First Wind’s request, they said, pre-emptied their decision.
On Wednesday night, commissioners voted unanimously to oppose tabling the decision on a TIF, saying they did not want to delay a decision without knowing a timetable.
“I don’t like tabling anything with time uncertain, that’s for sure,” York said.
They then took a second vote to turn down the TIF proposal entirely.
Commissioners emphasized that their decision should not set a precedent for possible future commercial wind projects and that negotiations with First Wind could resume in the future.
“It’s not aimed to set any kind of precedent,” York said.
Though one economic development expert was hopeful those two avenues would be pursued, he still expressed disappointment.
“Once you vote on something, it makes it more difficult to come back,” said Jim Batey, executive director of the Somerset Economic Development Corporation.
Residents of unorganized townships commended the commissioners for their decision, however.
“I find that their action tonight was very courageous and represented what they believed to be in the best interests of Somerset County,” said Karen Pease, of Lexington Township. “They worked really hard in getting their information,” she said, requesting it not just from First Wind and the county’s attorney, but from people who oppose the wind project, too.
“I was particularly impressed with Commissioner York and Commissioner Quinn talking about tourism and the guiding industry and how that might negatively be effected by this project,” said David Corrigan, a guide from Concord Township.
The company is still committed to the project, said John Lamontagne, director of corporate communications for First Wind, reached by phone after the meeting.
“We intend to keep the door open with the county and look forward to working collaboratively with the county,” he said. However, “certainly it is helpful to have a TIF because that provides some certainty around what your tax burden will be on an annual basis.”
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