Towns reap tax benefits from wind farms

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It has been two years since Mars Hill started receiving 20 years of $500,000 in annual payments from a tax increment financing deal connected to First Wind of Massachusetts’ 28-turbine wind farm, Town Manager Raymond Mersereau said Monday.

The deal has helped keep the town’s mill rate at 20 mills since 2007, when the farm went operational. Without it, the tax rate would be 26 mills, or $26 per $1,000 of assessed property, he said.

“It caused roughly a 20 percent decrease in taxes,” Mersereau said. “It was like we had 350 new houses in town. At the time we did it [2003] they were projecting putting 50 megawatts [worth of windmills] but they only put in 42, and the tax remained as if it were 50. That’s almost $12,000 a megawatt in tax benefits.

“I just talked today with a county commissioner from New Hampshire who had just done a tax agreement there, and he said they were only getting $5,000 a megawatt,” Mersereau added. “He said he didn’t want to tell anybody in New Hampshire about our deal.”

Lincoln officials await the planning board’s decision on the Lincoln portion of First Wind’s proposed 40-turbine wind project on ridgelines in Lincoln, Lee, Winn and Burlington. That deliberation began Monday.

If the Rollins Mountain project is approved by the towns, Maine Department of Environmental Protection and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, town officials anticipate at least $400,000 in revenue annually from their TIF negotiations, said Ruth Birtz, the town’s economic development director.

Lincoln also is considering added values afforded by the state TIF program, Birtz said. Previous TIFs have paid for portions of her own and town events coordinator Shelly Crosby’s salaries and new streetlights.

First Wind’s Stetson Mountain wind farm, which is almost operational, will generate about $3.8 million in tax revenue for Washington County over the next 20 years, said Matt Kearns, First Wind’s project manager.

It pays for an economic development director, a $1 million commercial revolving loan fund, $600,000 in economic planning funds and nature-based tourism initiatives of about $510,000, Kearns said.

“There are a few negatives with wind farms but a whole lot of positives,” Mersereau said. “They created more noise than some residents expected but that’s if you are really close to them, within 2,500 feet.”

The wind project’s electricity also goes into the Maine Public Service grid, where it is sold regionally. The project helps keep the grid’s maintenance costs low, Mersereau said.

“You don’t see many projects coming into the town that offer that kind of revenue with no new costs to the town,” he said. “TIF negotiations are all about the conditions at the time that you do them. We were really happy with the $500,000 then, and we still are.”

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