A wind developer on Friday argued against Cascade County imposing fees on small wind developments, but commissioners said they plan to continue studying the idea.
Commissioners called a meeting to discuss what other counties charge developers to cover impacts of the projects. One such impact that could occur is wear and tear on roads during construction.
“Has anybody ever addressed the aesthetic impacts?” commission Chairman Bill Salina asked.
The question was posed to Mark Jacobson of Invenergy, a Chicago-based wind developer that is developing projects in Montana, including in Cascade County.
“In what way?” Jacobson said.
“Change in landscape,” Salina said.
The county recently approved a 24-megawatt wind farm, called Big Otter, on 3,000 acres south of Belt. The wind farm would feature 16 turbines standing 400 feet tall, including the blade in an upright position. That’s the first phase of what could eventually be a 300-megawatt project involving 40,000 acres. Invenergy is the developer.
“It is the fact of the deal that this is a small segment of what may be a very large project,” Salina said of the first phase.
State law allows local governments to charge an impact fee for the first three years of operation, Cascade County currently does not charge the fees. Under state law, impact fees may not exceed .5 percent of the total cost of constructing the facility. If county fees are approved, they could be collected from the Big Otter project, including for the first phase that already has been approved, said Brian Hopkins, chief civil attorney for the county.
Jacobson urged commissioners not to “anchor” small wind farms with fees that are not tied to actual impacts. Impact fees, he said, should not be considered “revenue streams” for local governments, which already receive considerable sums in property taxes from the projects.
Jacobson said Invenergy is gearing up for construction of Big Otter in 2012. It would take two to three months to construct the first, he said. He described it as a “very small project.”
“I’m telling you, we’re watching every single bucket of money,” he said.
He added that smaller wind farms such as Big Otter, cannot absorb additional expenses the way larger operations such as Invenergy’s Judith Gap wind farm in Wheatland County can.
Invenergy paid Wheatland County $2.4 million in impact fees over three years for the Judith Gap project, which produces 135 megawatts of electricity.
Jacobson also said smaller projects have smaller impacts than larger projects.
It would require seven trucks to haul a single turbine to the site, he said.
Commissioner Jane Weber asked Jacobson if Invenergy plans to apply for a property tax break available to developers of renewable energy projects. Jacobson said the company will be applying for the tax abatement in Cascade County.
Renewable projects are eligible for tax breaks in which they pay 50 percent of property taxes the first five years of the project. Taxes go up by 10 percent each year over the next five years, until the company pays all of the property tax in the 10th year.
The tax reduction applies only to taxes levied for local high schools and elementary schools, as well as the local government offering the reduction.
Commissioner Joe Briggs said he couldn’t identify any impacts of small wind projects that would need to be covered by fees.
Hopkins said it would be up to commissioners to determine accurate impacts and a fair fee, if one is assessed.
“His points are well taken,” Hopkins said of Jacobson. “I’m not sure you can quantify all the costs. You can certainly quantify some of them.”
Salina said that Cascade County commissioners plan to gather additional information from other governments.
“Just so we don’t have to reinvent the wheel,” he said.
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