Gearing up for a July 10 state Site Evaluation Committee hearing, Antrim Wind Energy and the town's selectmen reached tax and land conservation agreements Thursday night.
"We're happy to have that behind us again and looking forward to hearing from the SEC on July 10," said Eolian Renewable Energy CEO Jack Kenworthy.
Antrim Wind Energy is a subsidiary of Portsmouth-based Eolian Renewable Energy.
In February, the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee denied Antrim Wind's application for the 30-megawatt capacity project, which proposes 10 492-foot tall wind turbines along the Tuttle Hill and Willard Mountain ridgelines, saying the surrounding conservation and open land would have sustained too much damage.
The town, Antrim Wind and the landowners leasing their land to the project have requested a rehearing of the decision. The SEC plans to deliberate on those motions at a public hearing on July 10.
In the new PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) agreement, Antrim Wind Energy agrees to pay the town more than $8 million over a 20-year period. The PILOT is almost identical to the PILOT agreement voided in May by a Hillsborough County Superior Court judge who found right-to-know violations in the drafting of the agreement.
Selectman Gordon Webber said on Friday the new PILOT takes into account the 30-megawatt project could be dropped to a 27-megawatt project by removing one turbine, if that makes the project more aesthetically pleasing to the SEC.
Thursday night, the town also agreed to hold the conservation easement of 100 acres on which four of the 10 wind turbines are to be erected, which increases the acreage to be conserved by the project from 800 to 900.
Webber said the board felt it timely to sign both agreements with the SEC hearing approaching.
"We're hoping it helps the SEC reverse its decision," Webber said.
Webber added that a letter of intent was signed by the board regarding the conservation easement, since the ultimate decision of whether the town should monitor the land owned by Charles Bean is up to voters.
"What it does do is bind Antrim Wind and the Bean family to the conservation easement now until town meeting," Webber said. "Now we can move forward knowing that Antrim Wind and Charles Bean will be committed to this easement."
Resident Mary Allen, along with several other residents, took selectmen to court earlier this year challenging the PILOT agreement on the grounds it was crafted at illegal non-public hearings. She said on Friday the town does not have a history of monitoring conservation easements.
"This is very unusual. We've never held a conservation easement. That's not what this town does, so we'll have to see what the voters say in March," Allen said, adding it would also be an unusual conservation easement since it would have wind turbines constructed on it. "It's clear it's going to have to go to the voters, and it's clear the voters are going to have to look at the cost . "
She added she was not surprised selectmen re-signed a slightly modified PILOT agreement after two public hearings this month, but doubted its importance before the SEC.
"I really don't think it's going to have an impact on July 10," Allen said. "What it does have an impact on is this 20-year agreement."
The tax agreement would cut the potential tax revenue by approximately half, but raise the town's assessed value. In a town with a cooperative school district partially based on the town's assessed value, it could end up costing the town more, Allen has argued.
Kenworthy and Webber have said having a PILOT agreement is financially beneficial for both parties and would financially back the town in the event the town has to pay taxes to the school district based on assessed value and not the PILOT, something the town is fighting in court.
Allen said on Friday that renewable energy projects already receive state and federal tax breaks.
"So when you are asking for a PILOT from a local town, it's just another tax credit," she said. "This is a third bite of the apple, or triple dipping. And I'm not sure that this is the way to go in tax-strapped New Hampshire."
In its motion for a rehearing, Antrim Wind Energy named the conservation easement as one of several new plans proposed to address the aesthetics issues.
Antrim Wind also suggested eliminating "Turbine 10," which would have been the closest to Willard Pond and the most visible from the beach. The energy company also touts the town's recent acceptance of $40,000 to address any perceived visual impacts to Gregg Lake.
Kenworthy said Friday if the SEC's Antrim Wind rejection is not reversed, it would have a long-term impact.
Aesthetically, the project has gone above and beyond previous projects in the state, he said, so denying the project creates a climate in which wind energy investors would be less willing to fund new projects, he said.
"There's no question in my mind .," Kenworthy said. "Here's a situation where we have invested $4 million over four years" and designed a project that has met or exceeded the aesthetic standards of all previously SEC-approved wind energy projects . "That's an unsafe investment climate, and these are not cheap projects to develop."