Tenants Harbor – The St. George Select Board voted June 5 to pull a planned June 13 ballot question after facing opposition and accusations of bias from some of the roughly 20 attendees.
“It is the right thing not to rush it,” said Chairman Richard Bates before the vote.
The measure would have allowed the formation of a committee and the hiring of legal representation to evaluate risks and negotiate a benefits agreement with Aqua Ventus, a consortium that plans to install two large floating wind turbines near Monhegan. The project currently includes plans to land 34.5-kilovolt power cables from the turbines at a site in Port Clyde.
The town-owned property at 10 Cold Storage Road, which the town is also working to turn into a public park, has been discussed as the landing point for the cables.
While discussing the events of a public hearing held the morning of June 3, Bates explained the town’s rationale in bringing the question before voters. “If we can’t reach a satisfactory agreement, there would be a private landowner who would benefit and we would have essentially no control over this issue,” he said.
But almost as soon as the meeting began, opponents to feeding the power cables into Port Clyde made their feelings known.
Gerry Cushman criticized the board for holding a public hearing on the ballot question on a Saturday morning, saying fishermen like him would have a hard time fitting it into their schedules.
Other fishermen in attendance joined Cushman in saying the wind project, and any larger project that could follow, were threats to their livelihood.
“You’re gonna open the door,” to larger wind projects, Cushman said, “and really screw us.”
Cushman emphasized that he felt it was wrong to portray the plan for power cables as inevitable, and accused Select Board members of spreading rumors about private landowners’ interest in hosting the cables. He said he wanted the board to present the issue in such a way that residents feel they have a choice in the matter.
Another said fishing was all he had and that this could mean the end of it. “Just remember who you represent,” he said, adding that the board works for the town’s residents, not Aqua Ventus.
Several attendees expressed a belief that the Select Board, and Bates in particular, have a personal desire to see the plan to land Aqua Ventus power cables come to fruition.
Bates said repeatedly that he wanted what was best for the town, and that he felt the town was simply acting on the best legal advice it had from Damariscotta attorney Jennifer Villeneuve. Villeneuve represented the town of Bristol in its 2014 deliberations over an Aqua Ventus plan to land cables there, which was aborted.
Kevin Lipson, who said he works for a law firm representing energy companies, said he would not allow the project to proceed as long as he lives in St. George. He and others pushed the board to cancel the June 13 vote.
Lipson also criticized the town for a lack of communication, saying he had only found out about the project that day. “It’s inappropriate to be holding public hearings when summer residents are not here,” he said.
“You have presented this as though there’s an element of inevitability to this,” he told the board. “You are, as a matter of law, 100 percent wrong.” He said that even though state law prohibits towns from crafting ordinances to block offshore wind projects or related infrastructure, the town could still craft a planning or zoning rule that would say the property is not meant for such projects, and that it would trump state law.
Lipson said he had organized some other residents who were willing to put half a million dollars toward development of the site on the condition that Aqua Ventus not be allowed to proceed, and he implored the Select Board to lead the town in blocking the power cables.
If that did not work, he said, “We will coalesce, we will organize and we will litigate.”
Lipson said the town could not trust promises of a benefit from Aqua Ventus. “These are my clients,” he said. “You’re dealing with the devil.” He also questioned whether the law firm currently representing the town had a conflict of interest because it also represents energy companies.
“Please do not assume we’re a bunch of nitwits here,” said Bates in response.
“I don’t have to assume,” Lipson said.
“This is a town – a Select Board – meeting. Please have some respect,” Bates replied.
While it was not addressed at the meeting, the board has previously discussed the fact that the town’s current law firm also represents Aqua Ventus. The ballot measure had been written in part to authorize the hiring of different legal representation for negotiations related to the wind project.
Bates expressed appreciation for Lipson’s input, and interest in his $500,000 offer to privately develop 10 Cold Storage Road. But he pushed back against the idea of canceling the June 13 vote.
Afterward, however, the board voted unanimously, with one member absent, to do just that. In discussions, Town Manager Tim Polky noted that the town had not heard from anyone who supports the power cables, only from a group of opponents that seemed to be growing.
Bates said he would look into Lipson’s proposal, but that he did not want the town to succumb to threats.
“Do it because it’s the right thing to do, not because of the money,” Polky advised.
Board recommends solar investment
The board also discussed and voted to recommend a less controversial renewable energy project that will go before voters June 13: a plan to install solar panels on the Transfer Station roof.
The ballot question asks voters whether to authorize the town to enter into an agreement with a solar power company.
Select Board member Tammy Willey said employees at the Transfer Station had approached her to say the money could be better spent, and asked where the power generated would go. Bates countered that the plan was unique in that it would create savings through net metering – the practice of selling excess energy produced back into the grid. He said it was less about generating power for town facilities and more about those savings.
The Select Board had previously discussed the idea, but held off on a decision while the state Public Utilities Commission debated how much credit to give solar energy generators for net metering.
The commission decided in January to allow customers who currently have solar installations and those who adopt them to collect a full rate on their excess power through 2017, but starting in 2018 the credit for net metering will begin to decrease. The town would take advantage of the higher rate by installing the panels before the end of the year.
Bates said in an earlier interview that the project would be expected to pay for itself in less than 10 years. He said the town has enough funds set aside to pay for the project, and pointed to the $20,000 Energy Efficiency Reserve approved as part of the 2017 budget at this year’s town meeting in May
Select Board member Wayne Sawyer explained his support for the idea. “Eighteen months ago it may have been the right thing to do, but it didn’t make us any money, didn’t save us any money,” he said, but now it would.
The board voted unanimously to recommend investment in a solar contract, though Willey commented that the town’s voters would ultimately decide.