ANTRIM - A Hillsborough County Superior Court judge David Garfunkel ruled Monday that town officials violated the state's Right-To-Know law by holding illegal non-public hearings with Antrim Wind Energy and its counsel to negotiate a payment in lieu of taxes, known as a PILOT agreement. As a result of the ruling, the terms of the deal between the town and Antrim Wind Energy has been voided.
The PILOT agreement, which was drafted by Antrim Wind attorney Susan Geiger, called for Antrim Wind to pay $337,500 in the first year of operation of a proposed 10-turbine wind farm that would have been constructed in Antrim on the ridge line of Tuttle Hill and Willard Mountain. That amount would increase 2.5 percent annually, for a final payment in the 20th year of $536,385. In total, Antrim Wind would have paid $8.7 million in taxes to the town.
The PILOT laid the financial groundwork for the wind farm, and has been the basis for much of the support from project backers. However the state's Site Evaluation Committee denied the site and facility to the wind developer in February due to negative visual impacts a wind farm would have on the town's aesthetics.
An appeal authored by an attorney for the wind developer has been submitted to the SEC by the town of Antrim, and another appeal is expected to be filed by Antrim Wind Energy.
Hillsborough County Superior Court North heard the case on April 10.
Plaintiffs who filed the suit against the town included Gordon and Mary Allen, Charlie Levesque, Martha Pinello, and Janice Longgood. The lawsuit was filed on July 20, 2012, claiming the Select Board held illegal non-public meetings with Antrim Wind and its counsel and failed to post minutes for some of the meetings.
The ruling voided the PILOT agreement, which was one of three things the plaintiffs asked for. The court denied the petitioners' request for attorney fees and costs, and also denied the request to order the board to receive remedial training on the state's Right-To-Know law.
The court did not feel the Select Board violated the Right-To-Know law deliberately, and therefore did not seek additional punishment, according to the ruling.
"[Town Administrator Galen] Stearns and [then-Select Board Chair Eric] Tenney testified that they believed the hearings did not have to be public based on the advise of town counsel," the court docket states.
Residents first filed a request with the town for information regarding meetings that took place between the Select Board and Antrim Wind on Feb. 14, 2011, March 7, 2011, April 5, 2011, August 24, 2011, and April 25, 2012.
"It really is unfortunate that we had to go to the effort of taking our selectmen to court," Levesque said in a phone interview Wednesday. "But it shouldn't be too much to ask our elected officials to follow the laws of the state."
The lawsuit was filed when no minutes or information was produced following the request. It argued that officials violated RSA 91-A pertaining to access to governmental records and meetings, specifically RSA 91-A:3, which relates to non-public sessions.
Although the court denied two of the three petitioners' requests, Levesque said that from the beginning the lawsuit was all about the PILOT agreement and attempting to nullify it.
"From the beginning we told them they needed to have these meetings in public," Levesque said.
Stearns and Select Board Chair Gordon Webber had yet to receive the court documents by press time and could not comment on the rulings.