• Contradictions of biomass project
    December 08,2013
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    The Dec. 31 deadline for a $40 million federal tax credit for the North Springfield biomass plant is approaching. As the deadline draws near, the explanations and statements by the developer’s representatives and town officials get stranger and stranger.

    So odd, in fact, that it appears at times that the right hand doesn’t always know what the left hand is doing. The latest example appeared in the Rutland Herald and Times Argus on Sunday, Dec. 1.

    The article to which I refer provides one of a number of examples of the scramble to build a wood-burning power plant in Vermont while government tax credits are still ripe for the picking. Allow me to recount just a couple of red flags that continue to appear to forewarn of what we will have in store if this deal is ever consummated.

    The hearing officer for the Public Service Board ruled last month that the North Springfield Energy Project be denied a certificate of public good. (Access to the 124-page decision is on the website of the Vermont Public Service Board.)

    Among numerous shortcomings of the project, the hearing officer ruled that insufficient road access to the site posed a fatal flaw to the power plant which would be located in the residential area of North Springfield.

    The hearing officer concluded in his recommendation to the PSB that the project would inhibit the “orderly economic development of the area.”

    The hearing officer and everyone who is familiar with this proposal also knows that the builder was well aware of the restricted access to the site. We know this because residents pointed it out after the project was put before the public in February 2012. As a result of public outcry, the developer came forth with a new plan to “front” $1.5 million to the town of Springfield to build a new road.

    Will this $1.5 million loan come from the $40 million the developer will get from us, in the form of taxpayer funds that the project seeks from the federal government?

    Now comes the rub. The town of Springfield, its lawyer Steve Ankuda and our Select Board have tried for the last 22 months to convince residents of Springfield that they “are not taking a position in favor of or in opposition to the project,” (Rutland Herald and Times Argus, Dec. 1).

    This quotation is odd since the New Hampshire-based attorney for the developer, Peter Van Oot, stated quite the opposite to the Herald in the same article, namely that “the developers and the town were working in ‘good faith’ to build the new access road” to the site of the plant. When I read last Sunday’s article, it sure appeared to me that the developer believes, and is acting as if, they have support from the town.

    In the same article is found the following: “Van Oot said the town and the developers were trying to ‘meet their mutual commitments’ (to build the road) under the memorandum of understanding, an agreement the town reached with the developers in June.”

    If I have read this right, the Springfield town attorney and the developer seem, in fact, to be sharing a jointly held, positive position on the building of the biomass plant road. Can we assume that if the town is “in” on the road to the power plant they probably also concur on the power plant? The jointly held position of the town of Springfield and the developer is a position that is contrary to the position taken by the PSB hearing officer.

    We also read in Susan Smallheer’s article that “(town) officials earlier this year estimated that the biomass project would increase the town’s tax base by 15 percent.” But wait, didn’t we also read in the article that the town would be giving the developer a $1.5 million “offset (to) the project’s future (town) tax bill” for the building the road?

    This deal appears to be cutting both ways, both of them good for the developer, neither of them good for us residents, taxpayers and home owners. First, the developer will get $40 million federal tax dollars. Then 15 percent of the tax revenues that are going to the town will go back to the developer as an “offset” (payback for the road loan?). Sounds to me like “one hand giveth and the other hand taketh away.” So what does the town really end up with?

    Dollars to doughnuts, we will end up with higher taxes. Here is one likely scenario. One question still outstanding involves the plant access roads, their costs and who is really paying. Many have already begun to ask where the money will come from for maintaining new access roads to the power plant site. Springfield already has the second most paved roadway in Vermont.

    One authority stated to me that the town budget two years ago was $200,000 for maintenance and repair of our roads. Seems like a lot of money. However that same year the town really needed $800,000 to keep the roads in proper order. I will leave it to the reader to decide the likely result for users of a 75 percent shortfall in the highway budget that year.

    Every taxpayer in Springfield and in the neighboring towns should wonder who is going to pay for the roads, not just the new power plant-inspired ones, but the upkeep of the roads leading to North Springfield under the pressure of voluminous tractor-trailer traffic, when we can’t afford the roads we already have?

    One final point on the subject of Springfield tax lists. The estimate by professionals, based on experience, is that property values within a 5-mile radius of wood-burning plants typically decline by an average of 7 percent or more. I wonder if anyone has any idea of how many of the 300 or so homeowners in the area will be seeking a reassessment of their property values in the face of a biomass plant. Some homeowners have already begun to question reassessment options for homes in the greater Springfield area.

    Officials in Springfield have been publicly ducking this topic for two years now since this project was announced. We know that in this case, where the public has no vote, silence is acceptance. Silence, as the strategy of the Select Board, is tantamount to approval of the project since absent opposition, this project will be approved. If this stinker (when McNeil in Burlington was built, people complained of odors from the plant) is foisted on Springfield, the elected officials are going to own it.

    Six hundred people in the greater Springfield area have not been silent. We have read about biomass over the last 20 months and are against it for reasons that include health, the environment, greenhouse gas and other emissions, public safety, quality of life and the branding and economic future of our area. We hope that the Public Service Board will conclude likewise.

    Randall Susman is a resident of North Springfield.
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