When wind energy is on the agenda at tax-decision time, it’s a matter of for better or for worse, for richer or for poorer.
Tuesday in Lowell, town meeting voters will decide whether to eliminate municipal taxes altogether, thanks to payments from the Kingdom Community Wind project.
In Sheffield, voters will decide whether to repeat last year’s choice to use revenue from the First Wind turbine project to slash the tax rate by 84 percent.
But up the road in Newark, residents must decide whether to raise the tax rate by 5 cents to fight wind development on a local ridgeline.
In all, wind-related items are on the ballot in at least four Vermont communities this week. In southern Vermont, Grafton voters will debate an item – the wording of which already has touched off criticism – prompted by a wind company’s interest in a series of hills in town.
Vermont lawmakers are in the midst of a lengthy debate in Montpelier regarding whether, and how, the state’s process for approving commercial wind development should be reformed, in part to give greater weight to town plans that discourage – or embrace – wind turbines.
For some Town Meeting Day voters, the effects of wind-energy generation and the debate over it will be on display in more immediate ways.
In Newark, Selectboard Chairman Michael Channon won’t seek re-election. He said the town’s fight against proposed measuring towers has turned his volunteer job into a 20-to-25-hour-a-week marathon.
“I’ve had enough,” he said last week. “This has affected my business and my family’s life. It’s way too much.”
An $800 windfall
The owner of an average-value home in Lowell – worth about $150,000, the town treasurer estimates – paid $809 this year in taxes for town and highway expenses.
Next year, that bill is likely to drop to zero.
The 21 turbines of Green Mountain Power’s Kingdom Community Wind project started turning last fall on Lowell Mountain. Under a signed agreement with the town, GMP will pay Lowell $535,000 every year – more than enough to pay all the town’s bills, which amounted to $447,000 this year.
It takes four separate articles on the town warning to dispose of all that cash: The first calls on voters to use the wind payments to reduce the tax rate to zero. The remaining articles ask the town to set up a savings reserve fund and direct surplus money from 2012 and 2013 into that fund.
Town Treasurer Pam Tetreault cautions that, even should the articles pass, residents still will pay school taxes, as usual.
For Selectman Alden Warner, a supporter of the wind project, creating the savings fund is critical. Despite the influx of money, the Selectboard didn’t go on a spending spree, he said.
“We figured the same way we always had: ‘What do we need to get by?’” he said. “There’s nothing over and above what we usually do.
“My personal opinion is we need a ‘ramp up’ savings account,” he added, “so that whenever the wind towers are decommissioned, we can spread the increase in taxes over a few years.”
In addition, he said, revenue from the wind project might help Lowell expand its school, “which has been at its maximum for umpteen years.” He predicts the school census will grow, putting more pressure on the space.
“I think more people will be enticed to live in town because of our low taxes,” he said.
Although the wind project is now a reality, a coalition of opponents known as the Lowell Mountain Group sent postcards to residents urging them to attend town meeting to vote on how the new revenue should be used.
“Most people thought the money would automatically reduce our taxes. They weren’t aware it had to be voted on,” member Robbin Clark said last week.
Although she continues to oppose wind development – “The detriment to our area has been just awful,” she said – now that the project is up, it’s important to make sure the money is used to lower taxes, she said.
Getting used to riches
In using new revenue to save taxes, Lowell would be following in the footsteps of Sheffield, which has been receiving payments from the 16-turbine Sheffield Wind project since fall 2011.
The town is guaranteed $520,000 a year for 20 years. At the 2012 town meeting, there was debate about whether to eliminate town taxes altogether or to put some of the money into savings.
“I think last year we were confused. It was hard to wrap your mind around,” Town Clerk Kathy Newland said last week.
Voters split the difference, directing half the money to current expenses, half to savings.
The town tax on a $100,000 home (the average value of a residence on six acres or less in Sheffield, according to the state Tax Department) dropped from $743 to $118.
Voters will be faced with the same choice of how to spend the money this week. “Hopefully it won’t be so confusing,” Newland said.
How to pay the legal bills
Lowell and Sheffield both endorsed wind energy development in public votes. Newark residents have been equally decisive in their opposition to plans by Eolian Wind Energy of Portsmouth, N.H., to erect a wind measuring tower on a hill known as Hawk Rock.
A majority of registered voters signed a petition opposing wind development. By a vote of 169-59, residents approved a new town plan that finds industrial-scale wind generation incompatible with the community’s values and vision of itself.
On Town Meeting Day, the bill comes due.
Already the town has incurred nearly $60,000 in legal expenses fighting Eolian’s plans and defending itself from a lawsuit brought by the owner of the land where the project would be built. More expenses lie ahead. An article on the warning proposes creation of a $50,000 fund to “assist in legal matters including but not limited to Industrial Wind related activities.”
One penny on the tax rate raises about $10,000 in Newark, so passage of the article would mean a one-year, 5 cent increase in the tax rate and another $84 on the tax bill of an average-value house worth $168,000.
“We need to have money set aside to the defend the town in any legal situation,” Selectboard Chairman Channon said. “We just haven’t had to do that in the past.”
Cynthia Barber, executive coordinator of the local opposition group Newark Neighbors United, said the group expects the $50,000 item to pass.
“Given the support we got when the town plan was changed, we believe this ought to pass, but it’s not assured,” she said.
The vote will test Newark residents’ commitment to fighting commercial wind turbines, because the legal fund is not the only special spending item on the warning.
Before they get to wind energy, voters will be asked if they want to spend $250,000 to build a new Town Clerk’s Office.
“So we’re going to start right off having a difficult conversation about money,” said Noreen Hession, a strong opponent of wind development.
Talking in Grafton
Grafton voters won’t be asked to raise or spend money related to wind energy. There, local opponents asked the Selectboard to add an item to the warning to prohibit industrial wind turbines.
The board refused, saying it had received legal advice that towns in Vermont lack the authority to prohibit wind installations. Instead they drafted an article asking whether the board should “continue conversations” with the developer and put any specific turbine proposal to a nonbinding public vote.
The article seems likely to provoke the kind of divisions and heated debate that other communities have experienced when wind developers come to town.
Selectboard members in Newark have advice for their residents that might apply in Grafton, as well.
“Whether we ever live among industrial wind turbines or not it is our hope that we don’t lose our community,” Chairman Channon wrote in this year’s town report.
“This is a complex and emotional issue and I hope all residents will try hard to understand that all this will pass and the town of Newark will still be home,” he wrote. “Without community, it will just be real estate.”
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