MILLSFIELD – Believing the county commissioners were not looking after the best interests of Millsfield residents in supporting the Granite Reliable Power wind farm, Millsfield residents Luc Cote and Wayne Urso said the property owners individually signed agreements with the Granite Reliable Power to protect themselves from huge property tax increases.
A businessman who owns L.L. Cote in nearby Errol, Cote responded to reports that the county commission was upset to discover the agreements between Millsfield property owners and Granite Reliable Power. Commissioner Paul Grenier said he felt the Millsfield residents had blatantly lied to the commission. Urso sent a written response to county officials and the press.
Both Cote and Urso said Millsfield property owners felt betrayed by the county commission. Cote said Millsfield residents had no voice in the discussions between county officials and Granite Reliable Power about the 33-turbine wind farm that would be largely sited in the unincorporated place.
Cote noted the county commission voted to support the wind farm and negotiated a Payment in Lieu of Taxes back in 2007 that called for annual payments of $495,000. Urso said without the PILOT agreement, the wind farm would not have been built. As an unincorporated place, Cote said Millsfield residents did not get to vote on the wind farm project. He charged Millsfield residents were shut out of the discussions.
“This deal was done behind closed doors and when the doors were open, the ink was dry,” Cote said.
Cote said there was concern that the wind farm would drive up property taxes in Millsfield. With few expenses and services, Millsfield residents usually do not pay any property taxes because revenues exceed expenses.
Lacking trust in the county commission, Cote said Millsfield residents asked to meet with Granite Reliable Power officials directly. He said residents told Granite Reliable Power their big concern with the project was its impact on their property taxes. Cote said the company agreed to negotiate an agreement with the Millsfield property owners to address that concern.
Signed on March 9, 2009, the individual agreements with the 11 Millsfield property owners state Granite Reliable Power will pay the owner if the wind farm results in an increase in their property tax bill. Cote said, however, the amount Granite Reliable Power will pay per property owner is capped at $5,000.
Urso said it was Granite Reliable Power that insisted on a strict confidentiality clause in the agreement. He said the Millsfield residents were shocked to learn of Brookfield Renewable Power, the majority owner of Granite Reliable Power, breaking the confidentiality agreement last week and sending a copy of the agreement to county officials.
Urso points out the agreement was reached long before the conflict between the county and state Department of Revenue Administration over the assessment of the wind farm.
Last year the state Department of Revenue Administration appraised the wind farm at $228 million – far higher than the $113 million used in calculating the PILOT. Urso said the additional $125 million assessment was largely shifted onto Millsfield property owners and he said most faced the possibility of tax bills in the $20,000 to $50,000 range.
Cote said his tax bill last year would have been $50,000. He said the $5,000 payment provided by the agreement was far less than his tax bill.
“That’s only ten percent. I don’t think that’s a good deal,” he said.
But the county used $334,365 in land use tax revenues generated by the wind farm to offset the increase in property taxes in Millsfield and Dixville last year and property owners were protected. Cote said, however, that the land use revenues belonged to the two unincorporated places and could have been used for other purposes.
Even with the individual agreements, Cote said Millsfield residents were concerned about future years when there would be no land use revenues to offset property taxes. Cote said property owners last year filed for property tax abatements under a poverty exemption because they believed the combination of the visual impact of the wind farm plus the high taxes made their properties unsellable.
“Who’s going to buy a house that’s going to cost $50,000 in taxes,” he asked.
Urso said the maximum $5,000 annual payment from Granite Reliable Power would not have protected Millsfield taxpayers from paying thousands of dollars in property taxes because of the DRA valuation. He stressed the valuation issue was not of Millsfield’s making. Urso charged the county failed to hire any valuation experts prior to negotiating the PILOT and Millsfield residents were left facing huge tax increases.
Cote said the issue was not settled until legislation was passed this summer, requiring the DRA to use the $113 million assessment negotiated in the PILOT.
“The bill brings us back to square one,” he said.
The individual agreements specifically required the Millsfield property owners to support the wind farm in the permitting and construction process. At the time of the agreement, the wind farm was completing the state Site Evaluation Committee process. Cote said Millsfield residents had no way to hire legal representation and no town staff to represent them. The county commission and delegation had gone on record in favor of the project. Cote said Millsfield residents felt shut out of the process and believed the county commission had sold them out by supporting the project.
“They left us in the dark,” said Cote. “They never consulted us when they sold us out,” he charged.
(A copy of the letter sent by Wayne Urso appears elsewhere in this edition).
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