Lee, Winn OK tax breaks for wind project

Posted March 17, 2009, at 8:50 p.m.
Last modified Feb. 13, 2011, at 11:01 a.m.

Lee and Winn will give significant tax breaks to First Wind of Massachusetts for the company’s proposed $130 million wind farm on Rollins Mountain if the project gets its permits, officials said Tuesday.

Lee residents voted 40-34 during a town meeting Monday night to agree to a 20-year tax increment financing, or TIF, agreement with First Wind, said Christine Mallett, Lee’s town clerk and registrar of voters.

“It was a pretty split vote. We thought it would be a close vote and it was,” First Selectman Kirk Ritchie said Tuesday. “People have a lot of concerns about wind projects. Our feeling is that the project is a good fit for the area and for the town.”

Gary Steinberg of Lincoln, a member of the Friends of Lincoln Lakes group, which opposes the project and has an appeal of Lincoln’s permit of it pending in Superior Court, thought Lee residents misguided.

“I think the TIF agreement is a rotten deal for Lee,” Steinberg said. “They should get a lot more for what they are giving up.”

Winn residents also voted Monday to approve a TIF agreement with First Wind, said John Lamontagne, a spokesman for First Wind. Details of that agreement were not immediately available. Winn officials did not return a message left at the town office Tuesday.

First Wind is seeking permits to build 40 1.5-megawatt turbines along the Rollins Mountain ridgelines that run through Burlington, Lee, Lincoln and Winn. A new 135-kilovolt transmission line would carry the wholesale electricity from the project through Mattawamkeag to the New England power grid, company officials have said.

Tax increment financing is among the state’s leading tools for aiding economic development. When a town sees an increase in valuation created by an investment, it also experiences a reduction in its share of state revenues and an increase in county taxes. A TIF allows a town to “shelter” the new valuation from the calculations of state revenue sharing, education subsidy and county tax assessment — in effect creating more money for the town. TIF agreements usually run 20 years.

With a TIF, however, the money that a town gains must be invested in community economic development projects, such as industrial parks or infrastructure improvements that aid businesses.

Lee’s selectmen have two TIF options, Ritchie said. The first would allow a 60-40 split between First Wind and the town of the taxable value of First Wind’s estimated $25 million investment in Lee — which includes seven turbines and the land under them — over 20 years.

The other option, an 83-17 split, would also have First Wind paying about $75,000 annually to Lee directly, without any TIF constraints, Ritchie said. That is about as much as the town would get from the 60-40 deal, he said.

Lee’s selectmen will determine the details of the TIF agreement within a few months during a public meeting or hearing, Ritchie said. No date has been set.

“Our position has been all along that we wanted to get money from the development that we could apply for electrical abatement,” he said. “This will allow that to happen.”

TIFs, Lamontagne said, “provide for us a degree of tax certainty for the project.”

“Essentially, it means that the project’s tax bill will be about the same every year for us,” he added Tuesday, “so for us to know what that is helps us to budget. It’s certainly a positive when it comes to the financial pieces of this.”

The project needs several state, local and federal approvals. It also lacks an investor to help build it.

Steinberg felt that Lee’s selectmen were too restrictive in what they allowed said during Monday’s meeting and that Lee residents should have been given much more time to mull the project and TIF agreement.

“A one-hour discussion on such an item is not appropriate for such an issue,” Steinberg said. “The citizens should have had a vote on the project itself.”

Lee residents will have many chances to advise selectmen on the TIF, Ritchie said.

Project proponents have praised First Wind as a conscientious creator of wind power, saying the Lincoln Lakes project would create as much as 60 megawatts of pollution-free electricity in peak winds.

The Friends group contends that the turbines would threaten human and animal health, lower land values with light flicker and low-decibel sound, violate at least three parts of town zoning law and typically generate a fraction of their capacity.

Lincoln has completed a TIF proposal, but its Town Council deadlocked 3-3 on March 9 on whether to approve the proposal, Town Manager Lisa Goodwin said. Councilor Samuel Clay was absent.

First Wind will try again for TIF approval shortly, Lamontagne said. No meeting date has been set.

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