A $350 million project involving the extension of a natural gas pipeline through 17 communities in central Maine is a game-changer, according to Fairfield Town Manager Josh Reny.
“A lot of people are still underestimating the significance of the project,” Reny said. “It’s like a new mill in each community, or when Interstate 95 was built through the area.”
The pipeline, built by Summit Natural Gas of Maine, will present challenges to each community, but whether each town will take full advantage of the opportunities remains to be seen.
Fairfield and Oakland are among those communities trying to maximize the benefits from the changes that will come from the pipeline, which is expected to give the region an economic boost by dramatically reducing the energy costs of businesses and residential customers alike.
A handful of residential customers are already connected to the pipeline in Augusta, Fairfield, Gardiner and Hallowell. More are expected to receive service over the next several months.
On Wednesday evening, the Fairfield Town Council will hear public comments on its effort to stay ahead of the curve, a tax increment financing district that will direct some area tax dollars away from the state and into local development.
TIF districts, which are becoming more common in Maine, typically are used to create pots of money that can be used to boost development of an economically depressed or blighted area within a community. The value of the property within the district’s boundaries is sheltered from the state, which results in more state revenue than otherwise would be directed to that community.
The money must be spent within the same district in which it is raised, an area that is defined when the TIF is created.
The TIF proposed by Fairfield’s town leaders is unusual in that it isn’t confined to one neighborhood. For the most part, it runs in a 5-foot-wide strip along the existing and planned route of the pipeline, about 15 miles through the town. That selective area is gerrymandered with the site of a proposed industrial park on Industrial Road, which could receive much of the captured tax money.
Reny said that the total taxable value of the town’s section of the pipeline is still not known, but current projections estimate it will be about $20 million.
“We need to leverage this as a springboard for future development,” Reny said.
The money generated by Fairfield’s TIF could be spent on a wide range of expenses that can be associated with the pipeline. The money could be spent on road and sidewalk repairs, Fire Department equipment and training, development of Kennebec Messalonskee Trails, and the costs of a regional energy program that would help businesses and residents convert to natural gas.
In Oakland, Town Manager Peter Nielsen said town leaders are hurrying to get a TIF district in place before taxes are committed in mid-July so that money generated this year can be captured for this year’s budget.
He said a legal consultant for the town has advised that the money could be spent on resurfacing Country Club Road, and on dues to FirstPark, a technology park supported by its municipal members.
Chelsea, Augusta, Vassalboro, Winslow and Waterville are also at various stages in discussions about establishing their own TIF districts to shelter the value of their share of the pipeline.
Fairfield is holding a public hearing on the cessation of another TIF, which was approved in 1999 to capture the value of development as Huhtamaki expanded its buildings.
Reny said the town could maintain both TIFs, but there is no reason to do so.
“You don’t want to be TIF-greedy,” he said. “You don’t want to have too much of your developable land and infrastructure in a TIF district.”
He said that if Huhtamaki were to plan development that would increase the land’s value further, it might be reinstated.
A different company, Maine Natural Gas, completed a 21-mile natural gas pipeline from Windsor to Augusta in October.
Public hearings on both Fairfield TIFs will be held at the beginning of the Town Council meeting at 6 p.m. Wednesday, in the Community Center.
Fairfield residents also will be able to ask about the TIF changes during Town Meeting, which is scheduled for 7 p.m. Monday, May 12.