ELLSWORTH, Maine —- Despite criticism of a wind power proposal in eastern Hancock County, including some from a county commissioner, the commission voted Thursday to establish financial development agreements with First Wind.
Blue Sky East, a subsidiary of First Wind, is seeking state approval to erect 19 turbines, each with a 1.8 megawatt capacity and 476 feet tall at the highest tip of its blades, in Township 16. The company has applied to the Land Use Regulation Commission for permitting approval to erect the turbines on Heifer and Bull hills.
The agreements approved Thursday by the Hancock County Commission would go into effect if LURC approves the project and the developer goes forward with it. One agreement would establish a tax increment financing district and a formula by which the county and First Wind would split tax revenues generated by the project. Another, called a community benefit agreement, establishes a separate schedule of per-turbine payments to the county.
The TIF agreement, which is projected to direct $4.7 million in tax payments to the county over a 30-year period, was approved by a 2-1 vote. Commissioners Steve Joy and Percy “Joe” Brown voted in favor of it, but Commissioner Fay Lawson voted against it.
The community benefit agreement, which is projected to direct another $3.96 million from First Wind to the county over a 20-year period, was approved by an identical vote.
Lawson explained why she voted “no” on the agreements. She said she could see no societal benefit to building a 19-turbine commercial wind farm in Township 16.
Such projects are a “blight on the landscape,” she said, and do not generate significant numbers of long-term jobs or help reduce the use of other types of energy sources, such as nuclear power and fossil fuels.
“I think it’s a bogus thing and we don’t need it,” Lawson said.
During a public hearing before the votes, Lynne Williams, a Bar Harbor attorney representing Concerned Citizens of Rural Hancock County, also spoke in opposition to the project and echoed some of Lawson’s concerns.
Calling the TIF proposal a “taxpayer handout,” she said First Wind doesn’t need financial incentives to develop wind power projects in Hancock County. She also questioned whether the TIF would meet the state requirements that it be established in a “blighted” area, in a place that needs rehabilitation, or in an area suitable for development into an arts district.
Williams also said she was dubious of claims that the wind farm would attract additional business development to the area.
“I think it will repel further development in the area,” Williams said.
Dave Fowler, project manager for First Wind, said after the votes that the TIF agreement will make the project more viable.
“It certainly makes this a more competitive site” for wind power development, he said. “It’s a great outcome.”
Brown said after the vote that the agreements were good financial deals for the county. Without a TIF agreement, he said, all the tax revenue would go to the state and little, if any, would come back to the county.
“We made a good deal,” Brown said. “It’s quite a chunk of money.”
The county’s attorney, Erik Stumpfel, said during the public hearing that the TIF district would encompass 555 acres of the Unorganized Territory in the county that currently have a total assessed value of $225,474. The expected value of the wind project is $69 million, he said, but after its first five years of operation it is expected to decline to $56 million. The project is expected to generate a total of $9.5 million in tax revenue over 30 years, he said.
Tax revenue would be split by a 70-30 percent ratio over its first 20 years, with First Wind retaining the larger share, according to Stumpfel. Over the last 10 years of the 30-year agreement, the county would keep 100 percent of the tax revenue. The split over the entire 30-year period would be almost even, with the county keeping $4.7 million and First Wind keeping $4.8 million, he said.
Roxanne Jobe of Eastern Maine Development Corp. said during the public hearing that state law limits how TIF funds can be used. There is no such restriction on money the county receives in the separate community benefit agreement, she said.
Allowable uses being considered by Hancock County include creating recreational trails open to snowmobiles or nonmotorized uses; expanding the availability of broadband communications access; and creating a competitive scholarship program for eligible Unorganized Territory residents, Jobe said.
Brown said commissioners are considering using TIF money to maintain the county road to Nicatous Lake and a county-owned property by the lake that has recreational snowmobile trails. He said the county is interested in using some of the community benefit agreement funds to improve emergency communications in western Hancock County.