Maple Ridge Wind Farm signs new PILOT deal

Turbines of the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, also called the Flat Rock Wind Project, will be bringing in less money to the towns and schools in the project area as well as to Lewis County through the new PILOT agreement signed on Wednesday morning. Julie Abbass/Watertown Daily Times

LOWVILLE — Ending the original 15-year Maple Ridge Wind Farm PILOT agreement two years early and lowering the 2018 and 2019 payments of that deal, the wind farm owners signed a new PILOT agreement on Wednesday morning.

The new deal schedules a total of $29 million in payments.

Although they are still technically part of the first PILOT agreement, the payments made by wind farm owner Avangrid Renewables in December 2018 and due later this month were amended to $7 million and $6 million, respectively, instead of over $8 million, during the negotiations that began in 2017.

In what would have been the final two years in that agreement, the first two payments of the new agreement will be $4 million and $3.5 million instead of the $8 million.

The fact that Avangrid Renewables contacted the taxing jurisdictions about renegotiating the PILOT agreement to not just renegotiate terms, but to cut that PILOT agreement short and start a completely new agreement is not what attorney for the taxing jurisdictions Kevin R. McAuliffe of Syracuse firm Barclay Damon, would term as “backing out” of the deal.

“On the contrary, I would say the company has been very honorable in its dealings,” Mr. McAuliffe said, “Sticking with the agreement until this point, paying more than anyone else.”

With 195 turbines in the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, also known as the Flat Rock Wind Projects I and II, Avangrid was paying about $26,000 per turbine, Mr. McAuliffe said, while PILOT agreements now usually garner about $6,000 to $7,000 per turbine.

Diminishing energy prices were another reason the wind company wanted to adjust the payments, he said.

In addition to the first two payments already mentioned under the new agreement, the towns of Martinsburg, Harrisburg, Lowville and Watson; Lowville, Copenhagen and South Lewis school districts; and the Lewis County will split $2.5 million annually from 2022 to 2024 and then $2 million from 2025 to 2031, according to information provided by the county Industrial Development Agency Executive Director Eric J. Virkler.

“Those numbers are based on 2018 tax rates,” said county Treasurer Patricia L. O’Brien, but the original payment agreement, “was based on the full value tax rates in 2005,” and was predicated on reimbursement by the state through the discontinued Empire Zone program.

Without Empire Zone Reimbursement, the agreed-upon payments would have been about $1.6 million.

In 2009, the Flat Rock-Maple Ridge wind farm owners at the time lost their Empire Zone designation causing a scramble to appeal and nearly precipitating a legal battle with the taxing jurisdictions, however in 2010, the farm’s EZ benefits were reinstated.

“Throughout the negotiating process, the municipalities’ leaders have attempted to balance the need to protect the taxpayer against the time and expense of litigation,” county attorney at that time, Richard J. Graham, said.

That same balance has been used in negotiating the new agreement and dealing with legal challenges.

In 2018, Avangrid filed a challenge to the $565 million property assessment in state Supreme Court, claiming it should have been $18.3 million, a nearly 97 percent reduction, because the assessments “include personal property or moveable machinery and equipment” that should not be considered “real property.”

Mr. McAuliffe said the action was a place holder the company used to protect itself in case there was a need for action later and expects it to be withdrawn within the next week.

Going forward, the assessment value will be used to calculate money going to the three fire districts within the project area whereas in the past, about $120,000 of the PILOT funds in each municipality were targeted for the purpose, Mrs. O’Brien said.

At the peak of the PILOT period, the municipalities received just below the $9 million cap for annual payments in the agreement, $8.9 million, $3.96 million of which went to Lowville Academy which had the highest tax rate during the year used for the PILOT calculations.

The 195-turbine wind farm spans about 21,000 acres and includes a 10.3-mile transmission line in the town of Watson. It was given its current name in 2005 after the first PILOT agreement was signed and became fully operational in 2006.

About 100 landowners receive annual payments from the project for hosting turbines.

At the end of this second PILOT agreement, Maple Ridge, the state’s largest wind farm, will have existed for 25 years.

Avangrid representatives could not be reached for comment.

Johnson Newspapers 7.1

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