$40,000 payment sets off debate; Developer of rejected wind site makes proposal contingent on ruling’s reversal
ANTRIM – The Select Board voted Monday night to delay the decision whether to accept a $40,000 compensation from Antrim Wind Energy until after the state committee that turned down the project in February releases its final order.
The wind developer has offered the town a one-time payment intended for improvements to the town as a way to offset visual concerns over the plan to install 10 of the 496-foot turbines on the Tuttle Hill and Willard Mountain ridge line. The payment would only be made if the decision is reversed, and if the town agrees to accept the money. Vocal critics of the wind plan and the $40,000 offer say that the Select Board is operating under its own agenda instead of fighting for the interests of the town and its residents.
Town Administrator Galen Stearns said in a phone interview Tuesday that the Select Board can decide to reopen the town’s public hearing when the written order is released, or choose to continue with its own deliberations to come up with a consensus decision.
Roughly 30 people attended Monday night’s public hearing, some on several occasions calling the offer an “insult to the town.” But Select Board members still weren’t ready to give up on an additional $40,000 should the Site Evaluation Committee reverse its decision.
“My gut feeling is … the town is for this project,” Select Board member Mike Genest said Monday night. “If we say no to this offer, we wind up with nothing.”
On March 15, Antrim Wind Energy drafted a letter to the town’s Select Board, offering “a one-time payment of $40,000 to the Town that will be used for enhancing recreational activities and the aesthetic experience at Gregg Lake beach.” The original letter specified the payment as “mitigation” specifically related to negative visual impacts the wind farm would have had against the town.
Later in March, the Select Board met and asked the town’s attorney, Barton Mayer, to review the letter drafted by the town. The Select Board changed the wording of the letter to read “acceptable compensation” instead of “mitigation” at that meeting.
Select Board Chair Gordon Webber said Monday night that “mitigation” was the wrong wording, since the money would not mitigate any perceived visual impacts.
“We’re not pretending that if we accept $40,000 we won’t see windmills at the beach,” Webber said.
Town committees would meet to discuss the use of the $40,000 to enhance the Gregg Lake recreational area should the board accept the offer and the SEC reverse its decision.
Once the Select Board opened up the floor to public comments Monday, most who spoke voice opinions against accepting the $40,000.
“I don’t think it’s your realm to discuss this at the time,” Janet McEwen said Monday night, referring to the fact that the SEC hasn’t issued its written order yet. “It’s insulting to think you are representing the town in front of the SEC. For you to interfere is inappropriate.”
“It does look like you’re taking a bribe,” said Kat Affholter, who also mentioned that the general wind industry is facing criticism from abutters who complain that a shadow strobe effect coming from wind towers is causing a variety of illnesses.
The whole process could very well be a moot point, however.
Once the SEC releases the written order, there will be a 30-day period for appeals to be made against the decision.
Webber said that Antrim Wind Energy has stated the company intends to appeal the SEC’s decision. However if an appeal is made and the decision is upheld, the $40,000 offer would be invalidated with the rest of the project.
But in the eyes of members of the Select Board, this is an opportunity to get an additional payment from Antrim Wind that ordinarily would not be an option.
“If we accept this and the decision gets reversed, we get an additional $40,000 along with the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) payments,” Webber said.
Any gift over $5,000 to the town requires a public hearing for acceptance. And although the hearing Monday was to listen to the public’s opinion as to why the $40,000 should or should not be accepted, some residents stated that they thought the Select Board had its own agenda.
“If you sign this letter, then this public hearing is a complete farce since almost everyone here was against it,” Richard Block said.
Stearns said Tuesday that the next step in the process is to get the SEC’s written order, then for Antrim Wind to appeal. There is no time limit for the written order to be made public.
“It will be [the SEC’s] choice at that point to either grant a rehearing or just listen to testimony from attorneys on both sides,” Stearns said.
Then, once the written order is released, the Select Board will make a decision to reopen the public hearing regarding the $40,000 offer.
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