An uphill battle ahead for Antrim

The road to building a wind farm atop Tuttle Hill just got a whole lot steeper.

A state commission has already ruled against the 10-turbine project for aesthetic reasons, and the town has recently filed its own appeal. Now, a judge has voided the very backbone of the deal between the town and Antrim Wind Energy — a 20-year PILOT, or payment in lieu of taxes, agreement that would have paid the town $8.7 million.

So for Antrim town officials, they’ll need to backtrack and possibly renegotiate another PILOT, if they have any hopes of getting this project back on track. And they may have to hold public meetings to make this all happen. But there’s so much more to this story, and so many other factors that will make renegotiating a lease a delicate political process.

Judge David Garfunkel has ruled that the PILOT was reached during a series of illegal nonpublic meetings and, even though Garfunkel found no willful negligence on the board’s part, it will be hard to erase the perception that the board isn’t interested in public input when it comes to this project. That’s been the contention all along, and it recently boiled over among a core group of residents who were frustrated that the town agreed to accept $40,000 from the developer for upgrades around town if the project were ever to be built. Outcry from that $40,000 decision led to one resident being ousted from the meeting by police escort and others walking out in protest.

If residents were so unhappy with the Select Board’s handling of a peripheral $40,000 payment from the developer, how can they be confident their input on a multi-million dollar PILOT will be taken seriously? And how plausible is it that the public hearings would end with a PILOT that differs substantially from the one that was recently voided? The concern for us, and for many others, is that any hearing would be a mere formality.

We’ve also learned that a lawyer representing Antrim Wind wrote both the original PILOT agreement and the town’s appeal — signed by the Select Board — to the state’s Site Evaluation Committee. Regardless of how you feel about the potential benefits of wind energy, it’s hard not to see this project as an overly cozy partnership between the developer and the town. And because the PILOT was negotiated outside of public meetings, it’s even harder to tell if the town is getting the best deal it can on this project. It gives the impression that the Select Board is acting on behalf of the developer, rather than on behalf of its constituents.

In fairness to the Select Board, they’ve yet to make a decision on how to move forward, and they’ll be discussing the matter at their next Select Board meeting. Chair Gordon Webber told the Ledger-Transcript that he was in favor of rewriting the PILOT in the context of public hearings.

We believe wind energy has a place in New Hampshire. And we recognize that a project of such size and scope will always come with strong opposition. But at the end of the process, residents who don’t agree should at least feel they’ve been heard and they should at least be able to say the process was open. It’s unlikely any of the opponents would say that’s been true so far.

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