Town debates merit of Save Prospect’s request for reimbursement
PROSPECT — Paying part of the legal fees for Save Prospect Corp. would be a bad precedent for the town, according to Mayor Bob Chatfield.
Chatfield addressed the issue during Tuesday night’s Town Council meeting. He spoke in response to a Save Prospect’s request for the town to pick up part of the tab accumulated in fighting Wind Prospect.
Save Prospect’s expenses for lawyers and expert witnesses have exceeded $125,000, leaving the group over $50,000 in debt.
Tim Reilly, president of Save Prospect, submitted a letter to the Town Council last month asking for reimbursement for the costs of a fight against two proposed wind turbines he said the group fought on behalf of the whole town.
The group claimed that the town left it on its own to oppose the wind turbines they believed would affect their health, safety, and quality of life.
Chatfield rebuffed claims that he and the town didn’t do enough to stand up for the neighborhood near the proposed turbine location.
He said he lobbied to get the Siting Council’s public hearing in Prospect rather than New Britain, where the governing body is located, and represented to town before the council. The Siting Council has sole jurisdiction over large energy projects, including wind turbines.
The Town Council, Planning and Zoning Commission, and Inlands Wetlands Commission all wrote letters to the Siting Council voicing opposition to the turbines.
Chatfield said he has been criticized from both sides of the issue.
“I can literally say I gave my heart and soul to this project,” Chatfield said.
However, Chatfield said he does not believe the town should be liable for and cannot afford Save Prospect’s legal fees.
The total town legal budget only totals $85,000, he said, and the town recently worked hard to reduce the budget, line by line.
Chatfield said he was fearful that if the town granted monies to Save Prospect, any other group opposed to changes in town could request the town pay their legal fees too.
“I think this is a very dangerous precedent,” Chatfield said.
Despite his feelings regarding the town paying for some legal fees, Chatfield said he personally intends to make a donation and assist Save Prospect with fundraisers to help clear the bill.
During public comment, several members of Save Prospect begged the Town Council to help.
Reilly said the group looked to a future Prospect narrowly averted yesterday as he visited Falmouth, Mass., a town wind turbine opponents have pointed to when demonstrating what can go wrong with turbines.
“There’s a hole in my heart because we won and they didn’t,” Reilly said.
He said his group didn’t want to set precedents, but was just looking for a little help.
“The town set precedent when they allowed this to happen,” Reilly said.
Resident Tim Sweeney said it should have been the town’s responsibility to make sure the turbines never got out of the planning stages because there is no state law specifically concerning the regulation of commercial wind turbines.
The town approved the installation of a meteorological tower on the proposed turbine site two years ago.
“I think (Save Prospect) should be reimbursed every penny,” Sweeney said.
Although there were no one opposed to the town paying Save Prospect’s legal fees present at the meeting, Town Council Chair Tom Galvin read four letters from the public on the issue.
The consensus among those who submitted letters was the town shouldn’t pay for the fight of a small group. They said Save Prospect did not represent them and had hurt the town by taking away what would have been the town’s largest taxpayer. Several letters said Save Prospect was fighting progress in their opposition to the turbines.
“It is not fair for taxpayers of our town to have to pay for a group fighting a project when hundreds of other taxpayers were in favor of the wind project. … Mayor Chatfield has done a great job of keeping our taxes down for the residents who are struggling enough to pay their taxes and other expenses just to live without paying expenses for special interest groups,” wrote Timothy Meehan.
In his letter, Michael Dreher said the town had already employed their own legal council to fight the turbines.
“We have already picked up a fair share of the expenses,” Dreher wrote.
Dreher requested that Councilor Patricia Geary not participate in the debate over whether the town should pay Save Prospect’s bills because of her own involvement in the group.
Geary said after the meeting that although she had made a donation to Save Prospect, she was not a member of the group and felt that she could be impartial as part of the fact-finding committee. She said she may consider abstaining from any votes emanating from the committee’s findings.
Stan Pilat reported that the fact-finding committee created after Save Prospect’s original request for reimbursement was still in the process of gather facts. He said the committee heard a lot of opinions from both sides of the issue and is awaiting the opinion of the town’s attorney. Once the group has looked into the matter, Pilat said it will be up to the Town Council to take action if it so chooses.