Wind Farm Windfalls

Wind mills work atop a mesa near the West Texas town of Sterling City in 2009. McLennan County commissioners approved a tax abatement deal for part of a wind farm planned near Mart, though most of the farm is planned in Limestone County.

McLennan County Commissioners on Tuesday approved the framework of a tax abatement program with Prairie Hill Wind Project, which proposes placing 100 turbines in McLennan and Limestone counties at a cost of $330 million.

The wind farm reportedly would prove a major boon to the Mart Independent School District, though officials have not released exact numbers on property tax generation. The county would get $50,000 payments annually from the developer, French energy powerhouse Engie, during the 10-year life of the abatement contract, county attorney Mike Dixon said during an interview after Tuesday’s meeting. The payments would be made in lieu of property taxes the project would generate the first 10 years.

The structure would prove beneficial to the company in the early years of operation by driving down costs, Dixon said. Later, when the farm is depreciating, the county would see the benefit of payments remaining steady.

After 10 years, taxes would be based on market value.

Reinvestment zones

Commissioners voted to create two reinvestment zones in eastern McLennan County to accommodate the project. Two are needed because the acreage in question is not contiguous, Dixon said. The project would use between 5,000 and 6,000 acres in McLennan County and about five times that much land in adjacent Limestone County, whose leaders also have approved tax abatements and flat-rate payments, Dixon said.

Dixon said the framework commissioners approved Tuesday will be forwarded to other taxing entities in the county for consideration.

Mart city officials did not return calls seeking comment.

Mart Independent School District expects tax revenue from the project will show itself in school facilities and programs, new Superintendent Betsy Burnett said by email.

“I have been brought up to speed on the wind farm project. We’re super excited about what this means for our district. … We’re currently in the process of building a new high school to replace the previous one built in 1929. It took a passed bond and hefty donation to make that possible,” Burnett wrote. “This wind farm should generate enough in taxes, even with the abatement, that we’ll be able to complete updating the rest of our district and maintain our facilities for many years to come.”

The operation will also create educational opportunities for students, she said.

“Our students will be able to watch the company construct, maintain and operate the facility — and learn about wind power and the benefits of this industry at the same time,” Burnett wrote. “Who knows — maybe we’ll raise the next group of wind energy engineers in our small town.”

County Commissioner Pat Chisolm-Miller, whose district includes the wind farm site, said it will prove beneficial to eastern McLennan County.

Most county residents who attended a community meeting she hosted expressed support for the project, though many had questions, Chisolm-Miller said.

Voting against

Commissioner Will Jones was alone in voting against creating the reinvestment zones and awarding tax abatements.

Jones said later the wind farm would generate little employment and would prove unsightly. He said he was not persuaded it would spur economic development worthy of the tax abatements it would receive.

“Aesthetically, I have opposed them at my family’s ranch in West Texas,” he said. “It would be hypocritical to not oppose them in eastern McLennan County. They’re awful to look at, worse at night when they’re blinking. The technology is just not reliable. The wind is not always going to blow. On the surface, the deal does not make sense without government subsidies. I don’t think it’s the right fit. No jobs will be created. It will be obsolete and depreciated in a short period of time, and we will be left with what’s there.”

McLennan County Judge Scott Felton said a study prepared by the Greater Waco Chamber of Commerce gave the project generally high grades.

Industry recruitment

Kris Collins, senior vice president for economic development at the chamber, attended Tuesday’s meeting to discuss ongoing recruitment of new industry. She said 11 major projects, seven new arrivals and four expansions, could create 2,300 new jobs long term and create the need for 2.5 million square feet of additional business or manufacturing space.

She would not discuss the identity of prospects.

She said the chamber is not pursuing Waco-McLennan County Economic Development Corp. funds for the wind farm because of limited local job creation. The county and city each contributes to the fund.

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