A proposed biomass plant at Robbins Lumber Inc. elicited numerous questions and comments from voters at the annual town meeting, but the project was overwhelmingly supported by the more than 100 residents in attendance.

It was standing room only in the lower level of Searsmont's Community Building April 2, as residents considered two warrant articles related to a 7.5-megawatt biomass facility at Robbins Lumber that would burn wood chips, bark and sawdust to power a steam turbine and generate electricity.

Waste steam from the plant would be used to dry lumber and heat buildings at the facility.

The project, which could cost as much as $35 million, is one of four selected by Maine Public Utilities Commission to participate in the state's Community-Based Renewable Energy Program. Central Maine Power Co. will enter into a 20-year contract with Georges River Energy, a subsidiary of Robbins Lumber, to purchase electricity generated by the biomass plant at a rate of 9.9 cents per kilowatt hour.

Residents were asked to approve a resolution supporting the project, to create a new Tax Increment Financing district for the proposed biomass plant for a 30-year period, and to amend an existing TIF for Robbins Lumber to increase its life span from 20 years to 30 years.

Towns and cities use TIFs as a legal tool to shelter value related to new buildings, additions, renovations or other changes that would increase a property's value. Municipalities with a higher valuation receive less state aid for education and less revenue sharing and pay higher county taxes, Eaton Peabody Attorney Jon Pottle said.

To help residents better understand the implications of approving or rejecting creation of a TIF for Georges River Energy, the town's assessing agent, James Murphy, recalled what happened when a project developed by Maritimes & Northeast Pipeline was added to Searsmont's tax rolls. When that project was added to the town's assessment, the tax rate increased from 14.27 mils to 17.4, according to previously published reports.

Such a spike would not occur, Murphy said, if Georges River Energy's project is placed in a TIF.

Although he is not a fan of TIFs in most cases, Murphy acknowledged the biomass TIF is beneficial.

“This [TIF] protects us locally,” Murphy said.

Barring any changes by the Legislature to the life span of TIFs, the new biomass plant would be added to the town's valuation at the end of the 30-year period. However, because much of the plant is personal property, the value of the facility will depreciate and have less of an impact on Searsmont's assessment.

Members of the Robbins family said the project will not increase taxes for residents.

Terms and conditions for the Robbins Lumber TIF and Georges River Energy TIF are the same, Pottle said. For years one through five, the TIFs will capture 90 percent of the new investment value. Then, in years six through 30, the TIFs will capture 75 percent of the value, he said.

In addition, the TIF for Georges River Energy includes a credit enhancement agreement that allows the town to give a portion of tax proceeds back to the business. That arrangement is critical, Eaton Peabody attorneys said, to allow the Robbinses to secure financing for the project. They will also pay the town $5,000, in addition to the taxes they already pay, for administrative costs related to the TIF.

Last year, Robbins Lumber paid about $187,000 in taxes.

During a 90-minute public hearing, residents posed a number of questions about noise, air pollution, truck trips and the impetus for pursuing what some in attendance felt was a risky business venture.

Noise and air pollution should not be an issue, members of the Robbins family said, because advances in technology for the new plant will mitigate such problems. In fact, they said the new plant, which is essentially a large-scale wood stove, will discharge about 50 percent of the particulates that are currently emitted by an existing 1.2-megawatt biomass plant on the property.

The project requires Department of Environmental Protection permitting.

They estimated there will be about 15 trucks entering and leaving the facility per day.

The Robbinses began pursuing plans for a biomass plant because they needed a way to dispose of some of the byproducts generated at the sawmill. As more paper mills around the state close, it's becoming increasingly difficult to find a market for the wood chips generated at the facility — about 90 tons a day — and loggers are losing their market for low-grade pulp wood.

The new plant can burn all of the chips generated from processing logs and Robbins Lumber will still need to buy tree-length low-grade pulp wood to chip and feed into the plant.

Residents also asked what happens to the electricity generated by the plant — all the power goes onto the grid — and whether electricity rates will increase because of the project.

Any increases in electricity rates would be so insignificant that consumers wouldn't notice a difference.

Before voting on the related warrant articles, a motion was made to vote by written ballot. However, that motion failed. Residents then voted to support the project, 82 to 20, and to amend the existing Robbins Lumber TIF and create a new TIF for Georges River Energy, 78 to 17.

Wind facility moratorium

Residents also approved enacting a moratorium for wind facilities. The moratorium is in effect for 180 days, but can be extended by selectmen. According to the warrant article, while the town has a zoning ordinance, it is unclear if wind facilities are permitted under that ordinance. Also, the zoning ordinance does not provide sufficient standards for review and approval of such a facility.

The moratorium does not apply to turbines that generate fewer than 100 kilowatts and are less than 100 feet in height.

Fiberight proposal

Residents supported a recommendation to send the town's solid waste to a new processing and recycling facility in Hampden to be built by Maryland-based Fiberight. The town's contract with Penobscot Energy Recovery Co. expires in 2018 and its tipping fees will increase from the current rate of $76 per ton to between $84 and $89 per ton. Fiberight will charge the town $70 per ton.

Foreclosed property sales

Article 28, which asked residents to authorize selectmen to sell any real estate or personal property acquired from non-payment of taxes, incited some fiery debate among residents who challenged the town's method of advertising foreclosed properties for sale. The article was amended to require any foreclosed properties that are being sold to be listed in the local newspaper, in Searsmont's town column and on the town website.

The remainder of the warrant, with the exception of articles 19 and 20, were approved as printed. Articles 19 and 20, which related to interest charged on late taxes and the interest paid by the town on abated taxes, were reduced from 7 percent to 5 percent.

Elections

Voters elected Don Corcoran, selectman, overseer of the poor, road commissioner and assessor; Evelyn DeFrees, Regional School Unit 71 representative; Jana Herbener and Jack DeGraff, Planning Board; Joyce Sirota and Carol Browning, Library Board of Trustees; Cenobio Rico, cemetery committee.