Tuesday night could end up as an evening of note in the annals of Fayette County and its history.
In front of a standing-room-only crowd in the Fayette Circuit Courtroom, the Fayette County Council emphatically voted 6-0 to approve a 10-year tax abatement for NextEra Energy Resources, with the vote effectively paving the way for the majority of a $250 million wind farm project to be established within the county in the near future.
The project, known as the Whitewater Wind Farm, is slated to extend throughout three area counties – Fayette, Rush and Henry – and involves the planned construction of more than 70 wind turbines between those three counties, with Fayette seeing the majority with 43 turbines.
NextEra Energy Resources has estimated that the total investment on the project, to Fayette County, would range from $120 to $141 million, with the county estimated to collect approximately $20 million in property tax revenue from the wind farm over its 30-year life span.
The energy company had been seeking the 10-year tax abatement from Fayette County – which would see the company not pay any property taxes for the first five years of the abatement, then pay an increasing scale of 10 to 50 percent of property tax the remaining five years of the abatement – in order to remain on a level “playing field” with other wind energy companies throughout the state which have received tax abatements, according to Jeremy Ferrell, project manager for the Whitewater Wind Farm.
In lieu of the property taxes NextEra would not pay for the first five years of the abatement, however, the company would instead pay “economic development payments” totaling roughly $2 million to the county for the first six years of the abatement. Once the abatement is over, NextEra would pay 100 percent in property taxes to Fayette County.
In addition, the wind farm would create anywhere between three to 10 full-time jobs and result in approximately 200 temporary jobs during its construction, according to Ferrell.
Tax abatements for the Whitewater Wind Farm have already been approved in Rush and Henry counties, along with decommissioning, road use and economic development contracts with NextEra. Fayette County Commissioners last month approved the decommissioning, road use and economic development contracts, but the project hinged on council’s vote Tuesday night on the tax abatement. Ferrell had previously told council, and reiterated the position at Tuesday’s meeting, that the project would “unequivocally” not happen in Fayette County without a tax abatement.
Unlike previous council meetings in the last few months, however, where opponents to the wind farm project constituted the majority of the audience, Tuesday’s meeting was dominated by a litany of supporters from throughout the county, including some prominent county officials.
Many members of the audience were adorned with green ribbons, signifying green energy, while others – mostly workers with area labor unions – held green signs stating “Wind generates jobs.”
Several of the supporters in the audience also spoke to council during the hearing, expressing their desire to see the body approve the tax abatement.
Two of those supporters were Sam Harvey, the Fayette County Republican Party Chair, and Tim Rose, the Fayette County Democratic Party Chair.
“For many years, I think that Fayette County has been known as a county of no,” Harvey told the council. “Twenty-five years ago, when I was city engineer … we had a prison coming to this town. But a vocal, small group – half a dozen people – stopped that. You drive to Sullivan, Indiana, where that prison was built, they’re double the size. It’s time for us to look at progress and look at what can be solved here. To tell the state, and the rest of the country, that Fayette County and Connersville is open for business.”
Rose echoed the sentiments of Harvey during his addressing council.
“We’re going to have to stop saying no to everything,” Rose said. “We need money, we need jobs, we need more revenue … Fayette County needs this.”
Many of the other speakers from the audience reiterated the thoughts of the positive impact the wind farm project could have on Fayette County for years to come, ranging on how the additional revenue could attract more business, create more jobs, assist in addressing social issues within the county such as the heroin epidemic, and change the culture and attitude of the county.
One elected official from neighboring Rush County, Rush County Council President Gerald Mohr, also encouraged council to approve the abatement and look at the wind farm as a “regional project” that could benefit all three counties involved.
“The money that can be generated by this, on such a small amount of land, will never happen again in my lifetime,” Mohr told council. “Whatever happens, it’s growth and money for the area. It’s money the state probably won’t touch much of … as a councilman, I encourage you to approve the project.”
Other county residents with no stake in the project, such as Mike Sparks, also voiced their support of the wind farm, emphasizing how approval of the project would break a long-standing stigma Fayette County has regarding its business climate.
“I’m in favor of the tax abatement for the NextEra Wind Farm project for many reasons,” he said. “One, we must break the old stigma that resonates to Indianapolis and beyond, one that has held Fayette County back for decades while neighboring counties pass us by. The stigma that Fayette County is opposed to any new growth or new business. Real or imagined, this is how we are perceived.”
Sparks went on to state that he believed the wind farm would only be the “tip of the iceberg” in what could be a wave of momentum for new business in the county.
“I consider the NextEra Wind Farm … as just the beginning,” he continued. “An initial major project with resulting expansive growth around it is precisely the means other communities (have grown). Now, with your help, it’s our turn.”
Only one speaker of the 20-plus residents who addressed council during the hearing, Wayne Jackson, expressed his opposition to the project, with that opposition focused on the stipulations of the tax abatement.
“The county is giving away too many tax dollars on this,” he said to council. “Fayette County deserves better than what we have.”
Councilmember Dale Strong did enter into the meeting record a petition, submitted by county resident Cecil Bell, which contained 46 signatures of county residents who stood in opposition to the wind farm project.
Upon conclusion of the public hearing, a motion to approve the tax abatement was made by councilmember Jim Wulff and seconded, in unison, by councilmembers Mark Pflum and Mark Nobbe. A roll call vote resulted in a 6-0 approval of the tax abatement, with councilmember Shirley Wise abstaining due to having a personal interest in the project.
The results of the vote drew two rounds of applause from the audience and congratulations from many on the council’s decision.
“When that gavel hit the table, it was a done deal,” said Larry Keller, spokesperson for the landowners group in Fairview and Posey townships who have been seeking a wind farm since roughly 2007. “This will be best thing that has come to Fayette County in years and it’s going to last a long time … it’s a very positive move forward. We’re on the map now. We’re on the map.”
Dan Parker, director of the Connersville/Fayette County Economic Development Group, felt much the same way after Tuesday’s vote.
“The Fayette County Council’s unanimous yes vote for wind energy was a huge victory for all of the people of Fayette County. The County Council’s unanimous vote sends a clear and strong welcome message to all future business prospects that we are open for business,” Parker said. “The County Council’s Whitewater Wind Farm tax abatement passage will allow the Rush, Henry and Fayette County’s $250 million dollar project to proceed to the final step with the Fayette County Area Planning Commission.”
Parker is confident that final step, which includes land use agreements between NextEra and the county, will also be approved. No date has yet to be scheduled for that meeting, which will take place in front of the Area Planning Commission.
“I am very confident that the same type of progressive, forward thinking that the Fayette County Commissioners and County Council demonstrated will be applied by the APC to grant the special exception needed to complete the legal paperwork,” Parker added. “This is a big win for Economic Development for Connersville and Fayette County and I want to thank all the members of the Fayette County Council for having the courage and wisdom to step up to the challenge for the people of Fayette County.”
Ferrell, who had seen his approach for a tax abatement previously denied in December by the county council, was also excited about Tuesday’s results.
“I think tonight was positive,” he said. “(County council) didn’t vote it down last time, they voted for more time. I think they did a commendable job … they took time. Each and every one of them did research on it … they saw that everything we’re saying is true. We’re not just throwing stuff out there. Everything we’ve said, they were able to verify, not even just through our projects but wind farms in general. This is a positive step for the county and these guys are seeing that. I’m obviously very excited about that.”
Ferrell foresees the Whitewater Wind Farm as getting started most likely in 2016, given the APC approves the land use agreements.
“The biggest thing is we’ve got to find someone to buy the power,” he said. “Now that I have clarity on this, I can really market this project. I’ve had some fliers out there, I’ve been talking to a number of folks that are interested in the project, but I’ve held back because I didn’t have full clarity. Now that I have clarity on the project, I can fully market this thing.”
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