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December 7, 2012

Showdown looms on Tipton wind farm

Dec. 18 abatement vote could make or break project

TIPTON — A major battle looms in Tipton County between landowners hoping to cash in on a new wind farm and opponents of further expansion, as the Tipton County Council must decide on tax incentives.

More than 50 opponents came to the council meeting this past Monday, and more than a dozen speakers came out against a proposal to cover most of Prairie Township and the area between Sharpsville and U.S. 31 with wind turbines.

Council members voted 6-0 to declare the 10-square-mile area a revitalization area, making it eligible for property tax abatements.

The vote on the actual abatements will be 7 p.m. Dec. 18 at the Tipton County Foundation offices, and council president Scott Friend said he hopes people make their voices heard.

Friend, who said he’s leaning toward voting against the proposed Prairie Breeze Wind Farm, added that he expects a large crowd at the meeting, after seeing such a big turnout Monday.

“I just think people are seeing the impact this is going to have on Tipton County,” Friend said. “I hope as many people show up as possible.”

If the abatements pass, it’s likely that Boulder, Colo.-based juwi Wind Energy will construct up to 94 wind turbines, mostly in Prairie Township, but also extending 2 miles to the east of U.S. 31, ending at the outskirts of Sharpsville. If it moves forward, the wind farm will be located between 200 North and the Howard County line, and 400 West and the Clinton County line.

The company is expected to invest between $100 million and $300 million for a project developers say is expected to produce between three and eight full-time jobs.

Councilwoman Suzanne Alexander said she’s torn on how she will vote, in part, she said, because the council vote seems like the culmination of a long process.

Landowners began signing contracts with juwi three years ago, at the height of the recession, and the company now says it has contracts with 50 property owners, covering about 150 parcels of land.

“I kind of get the feeling that the county council is the last little step in this process. It even comes across to me that we’re the last little stepping stone for what’s almost a signed, sealed agreement,” Alexander said.

The property tax abatement issue, however, could stop the project in its tracks. Asked if she thinks the project will move forward without the abatement, Alexander said “probably not.”

“The tax abatement is too valuable to [juwi],” she said.

Friend said there has been a drastic change in public reaction to wind turbines in Tipton County since the Wildcat Wind Farm, now under construction in eastern Tipton County, was approved and given abatements.

“The first meeting we had [for the Wildcat project] we didn’t really have anyone stand up who was against it,” Friend said. “This last meeting was much different. It was exactly the opposite ... now that the first farm’s gone up, people are more aware of what it will do to the landscape.”

Matt Heck, senior project developer on the juwi project, said the project cannot move ahead without both the local abatements and federal tax incentives.

Congress is currently debating an extension of the credits, which may expire at year’s end. The developers of the Wildcat project, E-On Climate & Renewables, is pushing to get the turbines up and running by year’s end to ensure the project will receive the federal subsidies.

Heck also said the project can’t move ahead under a separate proposal discussed Monday, which would limit the length of the county’s abatement to seven years. Heck said the standard length of abatement in Indiana for this type of wind project is 10 years.

The difference between a seven-year abatement and a 10-year abatement is about $709,000 in additional taxes the project would pay to the county, according to Friend.

“A seven-year abatement just doesn’t make it feasible and it doesn’t make it competitive either, if every other developer we’re trying to compete with for the same pool of buyers. It’s not realistic,” Heck said.

The project would likely be owned by a consortium, as a limited liability corporation, and with an escrow account in place to provide for the dismantling of the turbines decades from now, in the event the owners aren’t willing to.

The county stands to earn somewhere between $700,000 and $1.78 million in payments from the project, in addition to property taxes, and individual landowners stand to profit.

But Alexander and Friend both said they want to do whatever the majority of the citizens want.

“We are working for the citizens. They help us make the decision. They live in the area. They are the ones affected,” Alexander said.

Scott Smith can be reached at 765-454-8569 or at scott.smith@kokomotribune.com.

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