FREMONT – The people have spoken, but will it have any sway in the decision of whether or not to aid a major power infrastructure development in Steuben County?
On Wednesday, the Steuben County Industrial Development Agency (IDA) held a public hearing to gather comments on a plan to deliver $11.6 million in tax breaks to the Baron Winds Project – a $304 million project of parent company Innogy destined to locate 69 turbines in the towns of Fremont, Cohocton, Dansville, Wayland and Avoca.
An application for aid was submitted to the IDA on April 23, and the process mandated several public meetings on the issue. The aid would include sales tax exemptions on construction materials, a mortgage tax exemption for financing of the project and a property tax abatement in the form of a 20-year payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) payment.
The first of two hearings on Wednesday drew roughly 50 people, about a dozen of whom offered their insights, research and personal feelings about the prospect of living near the nearly 500 foot windmills. The room at Fremont Town Hall was split, but a vocal majority at the meeting spoke against allowing the PILOT payments. But an overwhelming sentiment in the room, voiced by several speakers was: “If you’re going to do it, make it fair for everyone.”
Some attended just to listen, others brought with them fervent opinions plastered of poster board.
“Our board is taking this very seriously,” IDA Executive Director James Johnson assured, prefacing the meeting.
All who decided to speak were allotted two minutes to do so in the interest of fairness, Johnson said.
Mona Meagher was disappointed that only one member of the IDA board was present, and wanted public comments to reach them all. She went on to cite other counties that had backed off PILOTS with wind companies, and criticized the few number of jobs that will result.
“It’s likely that not even one job will stay here in Steuben County, so you want to give millions in tax breaks for 1-3 jobs that might not even stay here. If they can’t build it without a PILOT, you have a flawed business model and should not be here,” she said.
Her other complaints included reduced property values, impacts on tourism, wildlife, health and safety – themes that would carry on through the hearing.
Laura Sauters also raised an issue with lost property tax revenue due to lowered property values.
“Your taxes are definitely going to go up,” she said, citing several articles she had read on the topic. “What happens when government funds dry up? … There are just too many unknowns.”
Burt Candee agreed that additional government funding was fundamentally unfair to taxpayers.
“This whole project is funded by the state and federal government to the tune of millions of dollars. For us to continue carrying the load is unfair to the communities,” he said. “We should all be taxed equally.”
John Sharkey expressed health and environmental concerns, but also alleged that developers were engaged in implementing a “greedy model” that takes taxpayer subsidies, but doesn’t actually produce a cost competitive product without public aid.
“The developers have the studies, they’re paid for by industry and trade organizations, yet they continue to push a zero impact valuation. Is there any scenario where you would pay more for a home in sight of a 500-600 foot wind turbine emitting noise and light pollution 24-hours a day? … Of course not,” he said.
People from neighboring communities and counties also sought to have their opinions submitted into the record, which a handful of Fremont residents audibly took issue with.
Supporters of the Baron Winds Project were also heard. Former Fremont Town Board Member Frank Owens said he supports it for the tax benefit to the town.
“We didn’t complain about Walmart or Wegmans taking a PILOT payment,” he said, telling the room that the town stands to lose tax revenue if the project did not happen.
Fremont resident Dan B. offered his pointed support.
“It’s a good clean development that benefits our town and the whole county,” he said.
David Marsh, representing Laborers Local 75, attested to the numerous construction jobs created by projects like Baron Winds.
Another person testifying confessed to being on the fence about the issue, relaying personal stories of properties damaged by wind turbine construction, and others whose farms were saved by a contract with the wind companies.
A second meeting was scheduled to take place at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, marking the end of the formal public comment, but IDA meetings are open to the public.
An unabridged transcript of the meetings will be made available to the IDA’s board members prior to a vote on the matter. Other public documents submitted to the IDA relating to the Baron Winds Project can be viewed at www.steubencountyida.com.
“This is a process we look forward to. All of the information will be part of the IDA public record and will be offered to the board to make their decision,” Johnson said.
A decision from the IDA’s board is expected in the late third quarter to early fourth quarter of the year, according to Johnson. However, there is no strict timeline for action.
If the PILOT is approved, the Steuben County IDA stands to receive an administrative fee of $3,041,000 (one percent of the overall project cost).
To learn more about the Baron Winds Project, visit the company’s site at www.iam.innogy.com or a local documents repository at the Hornell, Cohocton or Howard Public Libraries.
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