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Antrim residents again debating payment deal with wind developer

ANTRIM – Residents here continue to question the advantages of a proposed payment agreement between the town and a wind energy developer after a similar agreement was voided by a judge last month.

Selectmen signed a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) agreement last year with Antrim Wind Energy LLC, which is trying to build a wind farm in the northwest part of town.

But last month that agreement was voided by Hillsborough Superior Court North Judge David A. Garfunkel. The judge ruled that selectmen had violated the state’s Right-to-Know law when they held private meetings with representatives of Antrim Wind to determine details of the PILOT agreement.

Now that selectmen are taking up the topic again, several residents are speaking out with concerns also voiced the first time around.

Some residents want selectmen to consider shortening the terms of the PILOT from 20 years to five years. Others question whether the agreement is actually a better option for the town than taxing the wind farm based on its assessed property value – estimated to be roughly $60 million to $65 million – like other businesses in town.

But the PILOT agreement would only come into effect if the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee reverses its decision and approves the project.

In February, Antrim Wind Energy’s application to build a 10-turbine, 30-megawatt facility on the ridgeline of Tuttle Hill and Willard Mountain was rejected by the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee. The committee cited negative effects on the visual aesthetics in the region as the primary reason.

Earlier this month, Antrim Wind Energy asked for a rehearing, offering to reduce the number of turbines to nine, increase the amount of conserved land around the facility and pay $40,000 to the Harris Center for Conservation Education and the town of Antrim as compensation for any perceived negative effects of the project.

The Site Evaluation Committee will hold a public meeting in Concord on July 10 to discuss Antrim Wind Energy’s request, as well as others filed on behalf of the project and opposing it.

At the public hearing Monday, roughly 15 people spoke out of about 45 in attendance, with only a couple speaking in support of the payment deal.

The payments in the PILOT agreement grow cumulatively as long as the facility is in operation, but Richard Block said he thinks it’d be smarter to tax the facility regularly, so that the town could earn more money up front before the facility starts to depreciate. Block is a member of the North Branch group of intervenors, a group with land neighboring the proposed facility.

The chances of equipment failing or growing faulty is only going to increase as time goes by, which could reduce the town’s earnings as they’re supposed to be growing, he said.

Several residents said there is just too much unknown and too many risks with the project to agree to a long-term contract.

“Things happen when you draft documents,” Barbara Gard said. “They’re not always perfect and there’s always a reason to argue about them.”

Why not, she asked, reduce the terms of the agreement to five years and protect the town in case the agreement doesn’t work as planned? After that five-year period, if things are working well, then the parties can renegotiate, she said.

But Selectmen Chairman Gordon Webber said a 20-year agreement gives both parties stability and long-term financial planning. And when residents brought up the unknowns about the project, he said property taxes also are unpredictable, while the PILOT guarantees the town a known source of revenue.

The revised PILOT agreement is nearly identical to the voided agreement. Under the proposed 21-year contract, Antrim Wind Energy would pay the town $11,250 per megawatt for the first year the facility is open, which is forecast to be 2015. The amount would increase 2.5 percent every year.

The town and Antrim Wind Energy first began looking at the possibility of a PILOT agreement in 2011 because of concerns that the project would increase the town’s total assessed value, and therefore increase the amount Antrim owes in taxes to the county and Conval Regional School District.

In other news, residents voiced opinions Monday during a continued public hearing on whether the town should accept a 100-acre conservation easement offered by Antrim Wind Energy.

The wind developer has an agreement with Charles S. Bean to buy the land if the wind energy facility is approved, and Antrim Wind has asked the town to hold the conservation easement.

Some residents don’t think the town should manage the easement, though. And Monday night, Block presented selectmen with a petition to have the proposed acquisition placed on the warrant at town meeting. The petition had 100 signatures.

Selectmen will continue deliberating on the conservation easement and PILOT agreement Thursday at 7 p.m. at Town Hall.