As more wind power projects are proposed for Maine, the idea of a standardized community benefits package makes increasing sense. Rather than have every little town try to reinvent the wheel and negotiate a good deal for itself from wind developers, a base package would make life easier for volunteer boards and municipalities with small legal budgets. Such packages shouldn’t necessarily stop at town lines, however. It would also make for more predictability for the wind developers.
But Dale Morris, town manager in the Aroostook County town of Oakfield (pop. 732), says his town did quite well without a standardized benefit, thank you very much, in its negotiations with First Wind. The company proposed a 34-turbine, $120 million project, which the town approved. The project is now at the appeals stage before the Board of Environmental Protection. Before getting the green light from the town, First Wind made concessions that suggest Oakfield’s town manager and selectmen could have sold ice cubes on the Titanic’s lifeboats.
First Wind agreed to provide every household that qualifies for the state Homestead Exemption program an annual check of $800 to $900. The benefit, for which about 250 households are eligible, will continue for 20 years. To put that in perspective, the average property tax bill for those households is $675, so not only will those residents see their property tax bill essentially erased, they will actually make money.
Through the tax increment financing or TIF mechanism, First Wind will be assessed about $500,000, which is dedicated to a community benefit fund. That fund can be spent on road work, new firefighting equipment and other infrastructure and capital improvements, and it can be used for a town scholarship. The scholarship, Mr. Morris said, will be given to high school graduates bound for college, or those who have lost jobs and want to learn a new skill or trade.
How did a small town have such big clout? Mr. Morris said timing and knowledge were key. First Wind was eager to land the federal stimulus funds made available for wind projects, so Oakfield officials knew they stood between the company and those incentives. The town also researched the profitability of such wind projects, especially with the incentives. And the Oakfield proposal came after a wind proposal in the Oxford County town of Roxbury, for which residents there argued for having their electric bills reimbursed by the developer. “We went through a 12-14-month sorting-out process,” he said, including residents as much as possible. Attorneys were hired to help the town, but selectmen and the town manager did most of the heavy lifting. The town even got First Wind to reimburse its legal fees.
Not all residents are happy, of course. But those whose homes or camps were within sound range of the turbines were given sound easement payments. Such payments should be expanded to cover those within close proximity who are affected by the development, no matter what town they live in.
Wind developers should not be shaken down for money. But if a standardized community benefit is built into state law, legislators might consider Oakfield’s windfall as a baseline.