It took less than an hour for the Washington County commissioners to unanimously approve the financial agreement relating to the Washington County Downeast Wind Municipal Development and Tax Increment Financing (TIF) District. The public hearing held in the courthouse on February 24 was the final chance for residents to give input about the TIF portion of the project.
Approximately 20 people attended the hearing.
The proposed wind project will operate as part of Apex Clean Energy’s projects in Maine and New England and will be recognized as the Downeast Wind Farm, a subsidiary of Apex. The project calls for a total of 30 wind turbines, eight in Columbia and 22 in the Washington County unorganized territories (UT), specifically Township 18 and Township 24, and will encompass 13,210 acres.
The project has garnered much debate over the last few months. On January 9 more than 60 residents attended the first public session, with a majority opposed to the project. At that time commission Chair Chris Gardner stated as county commissioners they are limited in scope as to what they legally could consider when rendering their decision.
“We understand there are those for and against this project,” said Gardner at the February 24 hearing. “We heard from many at the previous public session and since then, but as I said then, our purview is clear, we as commissioners only have jurisdiction on the project’s financial impact as it relates to the TIF and Community Benefit Agreement.”
Wind project profile
According to Paul Williamson, senior development project manager for Apex, the current sites were chosen based on proximity to existing power line infrastructure and will have no impact on designated historic sites and no use of eminent domain. Additionally, all of the land is commercially managed for agriculture or forestry products.
Apex is making a $250 million investment, with $28 million going to landowners for land use, approximately $8 million in payroll for several hundred construction jobs and annual salaries of $500,000 for retained positions throughout the project’s lifespan. The wind farm is projected to add 50 more “induced” jobs, valued at $4.2 million, in the greater Washington County area.
Stephen Wagner with the law firm Rudman Winchell, representing the county in this matter, explained the essence of the financial agreement. Revenue associated with the TIF district in Township 18 and Township 24 comes from the difference in original and developed assessed value of the property the project operates within. Taxation at the pre-development assessment avoids reductions in state subsidies brought on by increased valuations.
“A TIF essentially is an economic development tool that shelters and captures the taxes on new investments while protecting the original assessed value of the property and allows leveraging of the property for projects such as the wind farm,” said Wagner. TIF funds also carry with them restrictions on how the revenues may be used, with priority given to economic development.
Revenues generated by the TIF would be split 70/30, with Apex receiving 70%, or $6.7 million, over the 25‑year project lifespan and the county receiving 30%, or $3.7 million.
In addition, the county will receive approximately $7 million from Apex through the Community Benefit Agreement (CBA), which is mandated by the Department of Environmental Protection and carries a 20‑year term. These monies will be directed per the agreement to support economic development, job training, scholarships, small business development, public safety and various infrastructure projects.
The agreement also includes a one‑time payment of $500,000 with $150,000 earmarked for the new vocational training center to be established at Four Corners in Columbia and $350,000 to the county to be used for lakeshore improvements on Schoodic Lake.
Public opinion for and against
The public comment period, which lasted about 20 minutes, saw just a handful of residents share their views on the project. Charles Rudelitch, Sunrise County Economic Council’s executive director, spoke in favor of the project, as did Deblois Selectman Bill Kitner. “I am in favor of this project primarily for the revenue it creates for capital projects as well as economic development,” said Rudelitch. “In particular, the $50,000 earmarked for scholarships for the next 20 years is an important source of revenue that frankly has not existed in the past.”
“We are an abutting township to Township 18, and we as a town are in favor of this project,” said Kitner. “We believe the TIF will ultimately help all towns in Washington County.”
A number of residents from the Schoodic Lake region expressed concerns regarding the impact the turbines and transmission lines could have long‑term on people’s health and on the potential for future lawsuits.
Another resident raised concerns about the impact the turbines may have on bees and pollination of the blueberry fields. Gardner responded by reminding those in attendance that Cherryfield Foods would not be an advocate of this project if there was a chance it could be a detriment to the industry.
Gardner also reminded all those concerned that these issues and questions are now part of public record and assured residents that the record will be forwarded to other agencies reviewing the project.
Next steps outlined
With the county commissioners’ approval, the project will now be submitted to the Department of Economic and Community Development, where it will be reviewed. Then the plan will be sent to the Land Use Planning Commission and the Department of Environmental Protection.
Williamson provided an estimated timeline for construction of the wind farm, pending approvals from all state agencies: a permit to build 30 Vespas V‑150 turbines would be submitted in the spring of 2020, and construction would begin towards the end of 2021 with a goal to complete the project by the end of 2022.
Gardner stressed that anyone looking for information about the contractual agreements regarding both the TIF and the CBA can access all of that on the county website.
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