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Warrantless meeting means no TIF vote in Eastbrook

EASTBROOK – What do phone taps, home searches and town meetings have in common?

In order for any of them to be legal, there has to be a warrant.

That lesson in legality was learned the hard way in Eastbrook Tuesday night. A vote on a multimillion-dollar benefits package from a proposed wind farm failed to take place as planned because a warrant for the meeting had not been posted.

It was not that no one knew the meeting was taking place, though. An audience of about two dozen Eastbrook residents, along with representatives from wind farm developer SunEdison and the law firm working with the town, filled the Charles L. Yeo Community Center.

The evening was supposed to consist of a public hearing to discuss a proposed tax increment financing (TIF) deal for the town, followed by a special town meeting and a vote. The deal would be with SunEdison, which plans to build a 22-turbine wind farm called Hancock Wind in Osborn and Eastbrook.

Eight of those 22 turbines would be in Eastbrook. Though SunEdison recently pulled its state application for the wind farm, company officials have said – and reiterated Tuesday – that they intend to file that application again in the future.

The TIF would be worth $13.9 million to Eastbrook over 30 years, and the proposal would also save the town about $1.5 million by hiding the value of the new development from use in state and county funding formulas.

An additional $3 million would come from a separate community benefit agreement with the developer.

The public hearing was set to start at 7 p.m., but was delayed as town officials conferred with Erik Stumpfel, a lawyer with Rudman Winchell who has been working with the town on the TIF issue.

Shortly after 7, First Selectman Julie Curtis announced the public hearing would take place but the meeting and vote would not because a warrant had not been posted.

“What?” asked one resident, disbelief evident in his voice.

“You’ve got to be kidding me,” said another.

“I’m just as disappointed as you are,” Curtis told the audience.

Stumpfel and town officials said that for a town meeting to be held, a warrant must be posted at least seven days in advance of the meeting. That did not happen in this case.

When one resident asked what had happened to the warrant, Curtis responded, “We’re not really sure.”

Selectmen said Tuesday that they were set to meet Wednesday evening to discuss setting a new date for a meeting and vote on the proposed TIF.

The public hearing was properly posted in advance and took place as planned. One resident asked about SunEdison’s decision to pull its application and how that would affect the town.

Noreen Norton, an economic development coordinator with Rudman Winchell, said it “doesn’t hurt you to vote it in.” She said if the town approves it, the TIF agreement would be in place when SunEdison re-files its application and, if approved, eventually builds the wind farm.

“Creating the TIF district in advance is almost like setting up a bank account for the money you expect to see later,” said Joan Fortin, an attorney working with SunEdison on the TIF issue.

She said SunEdison officials “fully intend to go forward with this project.” Charlie Baldwin, development project coordinator with SunEdison, said Hancock Wind is paused rather than canceled.

This is not the first trouble Eastbrook has had with a town meeting warrant this year. A typo in the warrant for the annual Town Meeting forced an almost immediate adjournment on May 18 and voters had to reschedule the meeting for June.

At issue was a line in the warrant that had a March 2012 date rather than May 18, 2015. Town Clerk Elizabeth Yeo said at the time that she was using an old template and that the word processing program she was using merged old and new information together.