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FREEDOM – Four years after the town’s commercial development review ordinance was thrown out to make way for a controversial wind energy development, voters have approved a new set of rules for commercial properties that touches on everything from water extraction to adult businesses, and yes, wind energy.
A separate ordinance specific to wind energy development was voted down at the polls. Both measures appeared on the March 8 ballot and the tallies in each case were close enough that town officials have said petitions for recounts may be forthcoming.
207 votes were cast in the referendum, according to Selectman Ron Price, who was re-elected to a third term over write-in candidate Bob Gerrish by a vote of 133-45. The commercial development review passed 103-100 and the wind energy ordinance was voted down 101-104.
Town Clerk Cynthia Abbott said two parties had taken out papers to petition for recounts – Pamela Hermon on the commercial development review ordinance, and Bob Gerrish on the wind energy ordinance. As of Thursday morning, Abbott said no completed petitions had been returned. The petitioners have until Friday to submit the forms, she said.
Regulations on commercial development have been a particularly thorny issue in Freedom since early 2006, when Portland-based Competitive Energy Services first proposed erecting three 400-foot wind turbines on Beaver Ridge. The development, which went online in late 2008 was the first of it’s kind in the region, so there wasn’t a readily available example of what it might be like. On one hand, the development carried the promise of renewable energy, but there were also political entanglements.
The land on which the turbines would ultimately be erected is owned by Selectman Price, who was serving his first term when CES, fronted by his nephew Andrew Price, approached the town. Accusations of inside dealing naturally followed. The Freedom selectman sometimes recused himself from discussions and votes on issues relating to the turbines and other times stayed in the mix asserting that he could separate his role in town government from the business concern.
CES convinced residents to support the development, largely on promises that the development would cut local property taxes by over 20-percent. The figure was based on a projected $10 million addition to the town’s valuation. In the process approving the turbines, the town’s commercial development review was thrown out as an impediment to the project.
The promised tax cut did appear, though it proved short-lived and was muted by unrelated errors in the town’s accounting. As a result much of the apparent benefit was never seen by property owners. In 2011 any tax benefit coming from the turbines was suddenly swallowed up by the state’s school funding formula.
The Essential Programs and Services system used by the state to apportion money to school districts starts with a calculation of the cost of educating a student. From there, a number of local factors are used to calculate how much of a school district’s per-pupil expenses should be borne by each constituent town. The major factor in the equation is the town’s aggregate property value, and the system is slanted. More money goes to districts composed of towns with lower valuations and vice versa.
The state’s valuations lag two years behind. As a result, the 20-percent bump in Freedom’s valuation registered in 2011 and the town was hit with a 17-percent increase in its obligation to the school district, the 11-town Regional School Unit 3.
The negation of the tax benefit from Beaver Ridge Wind prompted talks of drafting a new commercial development review ordinance. Some residents, including many with homes on Beaver Ridge pushed for an ordinance specific to wind energy. In the years since Beaver Ridge Wind went online a number of municipalities in Waldo County passed wind energy ordinances. Freedom was often presented as an example of how things could go wrong. Many of the ordinances approved by voters in neighboring towns all but banned commercial scale wind turbines.
The ordinance proposed in Freedom was less restrictive than some, but was ultimately voted down.
With the most contested issues decided at the voting booth, Price said Freedom’s annual town meeting on March 9 was relatively quick and uneventful.
“We met at 10 and we were done by 12:30,” he said.
Price said the bottom line of the town’s budget remained roughly the same as last year in terms of the amount to be raised from taxes.
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