Oakfield vote advances $300 million wind project in Aroostook County

By Jen Lynds, BDN Staff
Posted Nov. 22, 2011, at 7:25 p.m.

OAKFIELD, Maine — Residents on Monday evening voted to forge a tax increment financing agreement with a First Wind subsidiary on a new $300 million industrial wind project.

The decision was made after residents attended a two-hour special town meeting and voted 81-22 in favor of the TIF agreement.

Town and wind industry officials said the move would provide the town $16.5 million in benefits over 20 years. The project is anticipated to result in approximately $200 million of new taxable development within the town, according to information distributed during the meeting.

Matt Kearns, vice president of business development for First Wind of Massachusetts, Maine’s largest producer of wind-to-energy facilities, was gratified at the town’s vote.

“We are humbled by the support for the project and we could not be more thankful to the town for a rigorous public process,” Kearns said Tuesday. “We are looking forward to building the project.”

In January 2010, the Maine Department of Environmental Protection approved an environmental permit application for Evergreen Wind Power LLC, a subsidiary of First Wind of Massachusetts, to erect 34 1½-megawatt wind turbines in Oakfield and a neighboring township. The company amended its permit application, however, to erect 50 3-megawatt turbines along the ridge lines of Sam Drew Mountain and Oakfield Hills, 40 of which would be in Oakfield. The change nearly triples the generation capacity of the proposed project, which would create enough energy to power 20,000 or more homes, the firm has said.

Each 3-megawatt unit is about 489 feet from the tip of a rotor blade in the upright position to the ground, slightly taller than the 1½-megawatt assemblies, according to Kearns.

The amended project remains under Maine Department of Environmental Protection review. Kearns said he hopes to obtain approval for the remaining state and federal permit applications over the winter and to begin planning for construction to start in 2012.

Although some people spoke out against the project and the TIF agreement during Monday’s meeting, the majority of people attending were supportive of the idea. The benefits of the agreement include $14.3 million in TIF, or credit enhancement, payments over 20 years and a $600,000 gift from First Wind that would help the company meet the tangible benefits clause of its DEP environmental permit application, according to Town Manager Dale Morris.

According to the permit application, Evergreen Wind agreed to establish a community benefits fund with the town. This fund would be used at the town’s discretion to provide direct economic benefits to its residents by creating new programs or funding existing programs that provide benefits such as as low-income home heating support or energy conservation and efficiency assistance. The town voted to accept the benefits fund during the meeting.

Several people said they felt the project would spark economic growth in the region.

David Gordon, an Oakfield business owner, said he has had a windmill on his property to power his home for close to 14 years. He said during Monday’s event that he was very supportive of the TIF agreement and the entire project.

“I have been following this for five years,” he said. “I firmly believe that there is no better type of business for this community. Windmills are safe and offer excellent long-term jobs. This is as stable and sound as any business can be. I think this is the best thing that can happen to this town.”

The most vocal opposition to the project has come from residents concerned about the visual impact of the project and noise from the spinning turbines.

The DEP noted in its permit letter last year that the department received 50 comments from property owners on Pleasant Lake expressing concerns related to the visual impact on the lake and other issues.

The Island Falls Lakes Association, which represents more than 120 individuals and households with property on and around Pleasant and Mattawamkeag lakes, also voiced opposition to the project. Members of the association fear the project will have a significant impact on the scenic value of Pleasant Lake if users are able to see and hear the wind farm from the lake.

After the vote on Monday evening, officials said that the next step will be to secure additional permits in hopes of starting construction in the summer of 2012 with an estimated completion date of fall 2013.

During the meeting, residents learned that some 300 to 400 people will be employed during the construction process, with firms looking to employ local workers to serve as crane operators, construction workers and more. Residents also talked briefly about the prospect of generating additional income by renting camps and other living quarters to the workers who will flood the community.

This will be the state’s only industrial wind development visible from Interstate 95, First Wind officials have said.

http://bangordailynews.com/2011/11/22/news/aroostook/oakfield-vote-advances-300-million-wind-project-in-aroostook-county/ printed on July 29, 2014