|2/20/2014 12:50:00 PM
E.On wind farm remains up in the air in Grant County
|Karla Bowsher, Chronicle-TribuneThe future of Wildcat Wind Farm’s expansion into Grant County remains unclear.After discussing the matter for about two hours, Grant County Council members took no action on a tax break for energy company E.On Climate & Renewables during their monthly meeting Wednesday night. The county had originally granted the wind farm company the abatement back in 2011, but the company had not met a clause requiring construction to start by 2013, which is why they requested an extension.
Since the original abatement and agreements were signed, a grassroots citizens group has become a vocal opponent of the project. Eventually commissioners and E.On altered terms of the deal to try and meet some of the opponents’ requests.
Council member Michael Conner said he favors wind energy, while members Mike Scott and Dan Brock III said they would vote against an amended tax abatement for E.On, but none of the council’s seven members made a motion to vote on the matter. The members did the same thing during their December meeting.
Several E.On representatives addressed the council Wednesday, including lawyer Mary Solada, a partner in the regional law firm Bingham Greenebaum Doll.
She told council members if they did not approve the revised abatement, E.On could void the agreement it reached with the Grant County Board of Commissioners in the fall that included greater setbacks, meaning E.On would not erect wind turbines as close to homes as their original economic development agreement with the county allowed.
“They could choose not to honor that,” Solada said after the meeting, declining to comment further until she conferred with E.On representatives.
E.On spokesman Andy Melka could not be reached for comment after the meeting.
The expansion of E.ON’s $175 million Wildcat Wind Farm project had been expected to consist of 124 turbines in the area between Converse and Point Isabel, which would have encircled Swayzee. Because of the revised setbacks, however, the project would only have consisted of 60 towers in Grant County, meaning less money for the energy company.
If the agreement had been approved, construction would’ve started in December 2014 and finished in December 2015.
Council President Jim McWhirt told the other council members during the meeting that he was unsure of how to answer the question of what would happen if the council did not act on the abatement. He said the future of the wind farm expansion in Grant County would probably be up to E.On.
Mike Burton, board of commissioners president, also said after the meeting the next move is up to E.On.
The company’s options from here include reverting to the prior agreement between E.On and the county because both the Grant County Council and the Board of Commissioners approved it, meaning both are bound by it, he said.
The council’s lawyer, Phil Stephenson, agreed with Burton.
“(The county) can’t just walk away from that,” said Stephenson, a partner in the Marion-based firm Spitzer Herriman Stephenson Holderead Conner and Persinger.
Under the terms of the original abatement, E.On had to move forward with construction by the end of 2013. That did not happen, which is why E.On requested the abatement extension.
So while E.On could opt to proceed with the expansion, whether they could still receive the original abatement is more of a gray area, Stephenson said. Indiana’s property tax abatement laws state that a company only has to “substantially” comply with the terms of an abatement to receive the tax break. And the main thing the original abatement required of E.On was to pour cement for the base of one wind turbine, Stephenson said.
That means E.On could move forward with construction this year if they wanted to and argue they still “substantially” complied.
“They can move forward,” Stephenson said.
The council could decide not to grant or renew the abatement for future years if they wanted to and argue the company did not “substantially” comply, Stephenson said, but E.On could appeal that decision in circuit court.
“The trouble is there are so many variables,” he said. “This one’s pretty complicated statutorily. That’s the problem."