Farmington solar project raises questions

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Dairy farmer Herbert “Bussie” York chops corn stalks at the Sandy River Farm he owns in Farmington. He wants to lease 700 acres to a company that plans to install more than 300,000 solar panels. Developer NextEra says it would be the largest solar project in New England. (David Leaming/Morning Sentinel)

FARMINGTON — A proposal to build a $110 million, 490-acre solar farm off  Route 2 has divided some neighbors and raised concerns among members of the Planning Board.

The project, which is being developed by Florida-based NextEra Energy and its subsidiary, Farmington Solar LLC, would be in the vicinity of Horn Hill Road and Hovey Road and consist of 301,300 panels, which the company says would make it the largest solar project in New England.

“Why do we want to house the biggest solar project in New England?” board member Gloria McGraw asked Monday night during a meeting with project representatives. She cited concerns over benefits to the town in terms of jobs and tax revenue, and asked whether the energy will help lower local power bills.

Monday night’s Planning Board meeting was the first since the town received applications for half a dozen permits the company will need from local authorities for the project. Liz Peyton, project manger for the Farmington solar farm, was also there to answer questions and give an overview of what is proposed.

Additional permit requests were submitted to the Maine Department of Environmental Protection in May. The company is anticipating a construction start date in 2019 and completion in 2020.

The entirety of the solar farm would be built on land NextEra has leased long-term, including at Sandy River Farm, whose owner, Bussie York, recently described the struggle his dairy farm is going through with the loss of a commercial buyer for its milk.

York has been in discussions with NextEra since 2015 and has agreed to lease 700 acres of his farm to the company, though he would not say for how much. He said he is “100 percent in favor” of the project.

“This is a big deal,” he said. “It’s a major opportunity for Farmington that hasn’t come along in my lifetime. It has the potential to have a huge positive effect on the town and the taxpayers, with the smallest negative impact on infrastructure. There are no new schools to support, no new roads to plow. It’s really a big deal.”

Personally, York said, the project also has the potential to save his farm.

“It probably will stabilize a lot of the ups and downs in the agriculture business,” he said. “It’s not a pretty picture in the milk business right now or for dairy farms in the state.”

The town could receive about $2 million more in taxes each year, based on the $110 million investment in infrastructure the company is predicting, according to Town Manager Richard Davis. He said though that it is still too early to have final numbers on what the tax revenue or valuation changes would be for the town.

Davis said the additional revenue would enable the town to reduce its tax rate by one-fourth. The rate is $19.94 per $1,000 of property value.

Still, some residents and board members said they have concerns.

Kevin Reed, who lives on Stanwood Park Circle, abutting the site proposed for the project, said he is worried about his views, property valuation and potential health effects.

“How much will my property value decrease?” Reed asked. “I have seen companies like yours and your company saying property values don’t decline. Anti-solar people say it will decline 80 percent. Realtor.com says 40. Right now I have a beautiful field down below. I’ve lived there for 30 years and I’ve seen deer, moose, eagles. What you’re proposing will basically cut that off.”

Bill Crandall, another abutter to the site, said he understands the concerns of Reed and another resident who is worried about property values, but said he also supports York’s decision to do what he wants with his property.

“I don’t think you should make your neighbors sick or make the price of their homes go down, but Mr. York, he’s worked hard all his life trying to make a living and pay his taxes,” Crandall said. “Change is always hard, but if we can look at it in a compromised way, the Yorks have always allowed us as a community to use their land for sled dog races, and I think we should approach this with an open mind.”

The project is estimated to bring about 180 construction jobs to Farmington during the 24 to 36 months it would take to build and would result in eight to 10 permanent jobs, according to Peyton.

Board members also questioned her about whether the company would use local contractors. She said most of the jobs will be subcontracted to companies in Maine, though she could not guarantee the companies would be in the Farmington area, because some of the specialized work that will be needed.

She also said the company would work with the town to meet its requirement that they hold a bond to plan for decommissioning costs in case the farm fails or becomes irrelevant.

“That’s the biggest concern for me,” board member Craig Jordan said. “It’s nice you guys want to come here and hopefully the town will get some tax money out of it, but we need to plan for the event of failure.”

Electricity rates in Farmington are set by Central Maine Power Co., and NextEra has no control over the cost of electricity locally, Peyton said. But she said by adding a stable source of additional energy to the New England market, the project could help lower costs locally. Some of the electricity also will be purchased by Bowdoin College, she said.

The Planning Board has scheduled a walk-through of the proposed site for Aug. 29 and has tabled further discussion until its next meeting in September.

In other news Monday, the board also recognized longtime member Thomas Eastler for 24 years of service and approved the construction of a storage shed at Rustic Roots Farm.

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