The debate and disagreements over placing wind turbines in Cass County have turned family members against one another and neighbor against neighbor.
Cass County's advisers indicated Monday that a proposed wind turbine project would add over $100 million to the county's assessed value while decreasing residents' tax rates.
But that didn't impress the attendees who spoke at the end of the morning's meeting.
The Cass County Commissioners made public three agreements between the county and Harvest Wind Energy LLC Monday. The company is a subsidiary of Renewable Energy Systems Americas, or RES, based in Broomfield, Colorado. A financial adviser and attorney working for Cass County gave presentations on the contracts at the commissioners bi-monthly meeting Monday.
Jason Semler, a partner with H.J. Umbaugh and Associates' Indianapolis office, said the proposed 200-megawatt project would result in about a $335 million investment in the county. Cass County's gross assessed value would rise by over $100 million, he said.
RES is seeking a 10-year 55-percent property tax abatement for the project, Semler said. If it's granted, the company would end up paying about $9 million in property taxes throughout that decade while saving about $9 million.
The increase in assessed value to Cass County's tax base that the project would result in would allow certain funds to generate more revenue, Semler went on to say.
RES is pursuing the project in Cass County's northern townships. Semler said the project would give Adams Township's cumulative fund an extra $3,000 a year and Bethlehem Township's an extra $4,000 a year. Harrison and Boone townships' cumulative fire funds would gain $4,700 and $8,000 annually respectively.
Brenda Rusk, a member of Harrison Township's advisory board, reacted to those figures at the end of the meeting during public comments.
"I know what Harrison Township's budget is," Rusk said. "Looking at this right here, we're talking about dimes, we're talking about pennies, we're talking about not enough money to cause this much heartache."
Most of the county's funds are not allowed to generate additional revenue when assessed value rises because the state caps them, Semler explained. However, what new assessed value can do is decrease tax rates.
All of the townships would all experience a similar decrease, Semler said. Adams Township's property tax rate, for instance, would decrease by almost 12 cents per $100 of assessed value during the abatement period. A home with a gross assessed value of $50,000 would see its tax bill drop by about $10, Semler said, drawing a laugh from the audience. Semler added that same bill would drop by about $20 after the 10-year abatement.
A home with a gross assessed value of $150,000 would get its tax bill cut by $130 after the abatement period, Semler went on to say.
Semler said taxes on land would also decrease about $1.87 per acre during the abatement period and $3.32 per acre after.
Evan Criswell, Royal Center, asked the audience during public comments if they'd rather take the savings on their taxes or pay the extra money, to which many responded with a resounding desire for the latter.
RES has agreed to give economic development payments to the county in the amount of $25,000 per megawatt, Semler said. The 200-megawatt project would total $5 million, which RES would give the county in annual $1.25 million payments over four years.
Rick Hall, an attorney with Barnes & Thornburg LLP in Indianapolis, went over the the economic development agreement, road agreement and decommissioning agreement between Cass County and Harvest Wind Energy LLC.
Hall said the county commissioners and council would decide which legal governmental purposes the $5 million in economic development payments would be used for.
The economic development agreement also calls for RES to pay the county $25,000 per megawatt for every megawatt the project generates over 200 megawatts, Hall said.
If the project's gross assessed value turns out to be lower than the figure Semler cited of over $100 million, Hall said RES would issue payments in lieu of taxes to make up the difference.
The economic development agreement outlines the setback rules the project would follow as well. Turbines would be at least 1,000 feet from nonparticipating property lines, 1,640 feet from residences and have 50-decibel limits 50 feet from homes.
While more stringent than the county's rules, they're not stringent enough for the project's opponents, who want setbacks to be measured solely to property lines and at a distance of at least a half-mile.
Hall said the road agreement would require RES to indicate which roads would be used to transport turbine equipment for construction and which drains would potentially be affected. Then engineers would prepare a road condition report. If in poor condition, Hall said RES would upgrade the road before construction.
RES would have to restore all damaged roads and drains after construction, Hall also said.
"At the end of the day, the roads will be in at least as good if not better condition than they exist right now in the area," Hall said.
RES would have to warranty all the repairs for at least three years and secure third-party credit to ensure the county wouldn't be left with the cost of repairing roads, according to Hall.
The decommissioning agreement would require RES to take the turbines down if the project does not generate electricity for 12 consecutive months, Hall said. A bond or letter of credit from a credit-worthy company would fund the decommissioning in the event RES or its successor could not.
Cass County Commissioners President Jim Sailors said at the meeting that an evening public meeting will be scheduled where attendees can ask questions about the project. The commissioners will then vote on the three agreements at one of their regularly scheduled meetings after that. Sailors said after Monday's meeting that RES will be represented at the upcoming public meeting.
While RES has yet choose a turbine for the project, the company has indicated in the past that they'll be around 600 feet tall.
Daniele Mullinax, Denver, said that's higher than the training altitude for military aircraft that fly in the area from the U.S. Air National Guard 122nd Fighter Wing in Fort Wayne.
Master Sgt. Darin Hubble, public affairs superintendent for the 122nd Fighter Wing, addressed that concern in an email.
"We are working through local and state representatives in your area," Hubble wrote. "They are completely aware of any difficulties that this proposition may cause us here."
Cindy Schmaltz, Royal Center, asked if the turbines could damage underground natural gas lines in the area.
NIPSCO spokesman Nick Meyer said by phone Monday that the company is aware RES has spoken with landowners above or near underground natural gas storage fields, but that RES has yet to contact NIPSCO about the project. He was reluctant to comment on the potential for turbines compromising the integrity of NIPSCO's underground natural gas system until knowing more about the plans.