Somerset struggles amid slow rollout of offshore wind
Residents not happy with ‘interim’ scrap metal business at former coal plant site
WHEN A ST. LOUIS company bought the massive coal-fired Brayton Point power plant in Somerset in 2018, the firm was viewed far and wide as a white knight riding to the town’s rescue.
Commercial Development Co., which bills itself as North America’s leading brownfield developer, promised to raze the shuttered power plant and convert the 306 acres along the Taunton River into an outpost for America’s emerging offshore wind industry. Instead of cooling towers and coal dust, the company promised the 18,000 residents of Somerset in southeastern Massachusetts a fresh start with an industry on the rise. The plan called for manufacturing offshore wind components on the site and repurposing the existing connection to the regional power grid for the wind farms going up off the coast.
But the white knight quickly got knocked off its horse. The Trump administration held up approval of Vineyard Wind, the nation’s first major offshore wind farm, and, by extension, the rest of the offshore wind industry, which left Commercial Development with a vast, empty site and no revenue coming in. So the company began renting space to other types of businesses. Scrap metal was trucked in from the surrounding area and then shipped out to Turkey. Another tenant imported road salt, which was hauled to local towns during the winter.
Residents were not happy with the big trucks coming and going to the Brayton Point site via a two-lane road and they bristled at the noise and dust coming from the scrap metal business. Their complaints to Commercial Development yielded no significant changes in the operation, so they began to mobilize.
Commercial Development saw its petition as the best way to help itself and Somerset. The expanded operations would provide the company income from the property while it awaits a promised revival of support for wind energy from the Biden administration, while helping the town by increasing the tax payments it collects from the site. With the Zoning Board of Appeals rejecting the petition, the company is now suing the town in Land Court to overturn the decision.
“Are we frustrated? Yes, we’re frustrated,” said Stephen Collins, executive vice president of the company. “We’re paying more in attorney’s fees than we’re getting in rent.”
What’s happening at Brayton Point illustrates how decisions made in Washington can have far reaching consequences. The Biden administration is now aggressively pushing ahead with offshore wind, but it will be at least five years before enough turbines start spinning off the coast to benefit Somerset. In the meantime, the town is facing an uncertain future. The coal-fired power plant, once the community’s largest taxpayer, is gone. Millions of dollars in stopgap aid from the state have stopped flowing. And residents, divided and angry, seem unable to reach consensus on what to do with Brayton Point.
“It’s been a nightmare,” said Allen Smith, who is running for a seat on the Board of Selectmen and is very sympathetic to the concerns raised by neighbors of Brayton Point. He says Commercial Development should come into compliance with town zoning laws and stick with its original plan, even if the payday for offshore wind is years away.
“I personally don’t have a lot of sympathy for them,” said Smith. “This is a multi-billion-dollar company that has more than 300 projects in North America. This is the risk you take.”
The town and company relationship, which is now so badly frayed, began with so much promise. Commercial Development bought the Brayton Point property for $8 million and poured more than $20 million into remediation. A video taken in 2019 showing the implosion of the two giant cooling towers at the old coal-fired power plant caught everyone’s attention, and signaled that dramatic change was coming.
In May 2019, the company took another key step, announcing an agreement with Anbaric, a Wakefield-based electric transmission developer. The company said it wanted to build a massive battery storage unit at Brayton Point along with a facility to convert electricity brought in from the wind farms for use on the region’s power grid. The total Anbaric investment was valued at $650 million.
Just three months later, however, momentum came grinding to a halt because of a decision in Washington. Vineyard Wind was on track to start construction in 2019 when the Trump administration put the project on hold indefinitely to study the cumulative impact of building dozens of offshore wind farms up and down the East Coast.
The Biden administration earlier this year resuscitated the project and it is expected to receive a key environmental approval soon. But the two-year delay was a devastating blow for Brayton Point and Somerset, whose hopes for an offshore wind bonanza depend on multiple wind farms operating off the coast in need of support operations and interconnection points with the region’s power grid.
For Brayton Point, the long delay meant Commercial Development needed a Plan B. In the summer of 2019, the company, with a verbal approval from sympathetic town officials, began to rent space to scrap metal and road salt operations. Neighbors along the road leading into the facility and across a stretch of the Taunton River from the ship-loading area were caught off guard by all the activity, and began complaining to town officials about noise, truck traffic, and metal dust.
In January 2020, despite growing opposition from neighbors, the company won formal approval from the Zoning Board of Appeals for its scrap metal and road salt operations. Traffic was limited to 50 trucks a day of scrap metal and 20 trucks of road salt. According to press reports, state Rep. Christopher Markey of Dartmouth represented Commercial Development as its attorney.
The two businesses experienced some growing pains. The scrap metal operation was cited in December 2020 by the state Department of Environmental Protection for dropping scrap metal into the water while loading cargo ships. The road salt operation encountered difficulties this winter when communities needed road salt and couldn’t get it because the company was limited to 20 trucks a day.
Neighbors opposed to Commercial Development’s activities put pressure on town officials and looked to replace those who weren’t cooperative. In a race for the Board of Selectmen in 2020, Lorne Lawless took on two-term incumbent David Berube. Berube was viewed as sympathetic to Commercial Development’s situation, while Lawless sided with residents complaining about noise and dust. When the votes were tallied, Berube edged Lawless by 39 votes in four of the town’s five precincts, but Lawless won the race by beating Berube in the fifth precinct by 152 votes. The fifth precinct is the one closest to Brayton Point and the one where opposition to the scrap metal and road salt businesses is the strongest.
Another seat on the Board of Selectmen is up for grabs next month, and Berube is running again, this time against Smith. A victory by Smith would give residents concerned about Commercial Development two potential allies on the board. Town Administrator Richard Brown declined comment on Commercial Development, citing ongoing litigation.
The changing politics in Somerset provided the backdrop as Commercial Development petitioned the Zoning Board of Appeals for approval to expand its operations at Brayton Point. In addition to offshore wind work, it wanted approval to process more commodities and run more trucks in and out of the facility – 155 trucks a day, on average, and a maximum of 275 a day.
The Zoning Board of Appeals, pressured by community residents, asked Commercial Development to stop its scrap metal operation because that was the chief cause of dust and noise, but the company refused. The board then rejected Commercial Development’s petition because the company could not comply with a town bylaw requiring all dust to be effectively confined to the premises and because its expanded operations would result in a truck rolling down the road to the site every 60 seconds between 7:30 a.m. and 4:30 p.m.
“The petition proposed a use that was so intrusive on the needs of the public with respect to traffic and the environmental hazards necessarily produced by port operation, including dust and noise, that rejection was required and no form of reasonable conditions could be devised to satisfy the problems,” the board said in its decision.
Commercial Development officials were stunned. Collins, the company executive vice president, said he had heard about town meetings in New England, but he wasn’t prepared for the level of local engagement in Somerset. In many ways, company officials still saw themselves as white knights. There may have been some traffic and noise with their interim operations, but the impact, they felt, was nothing compared to the coal plant that had operated on the same property for 57 years.
The company responded to the zoning decision by filing an appeal with the Land Court and by reminding town residents that they are reliant on what the company calls the Brayton Point Commerce Center. The firm sent out a press release saying Brayton Point is generating only $50,000 a month in tax revenues for the town, but the property has the redevelopment potential of $1 billion and could generate $6 million a year in tax revenue.
“Tragically, that development potential including jobs and tax revenue remain out of reach because the Brayton Point Commerce Center cannot entertain high-value tenants without local approval,” the press release said. “The January Zoning Board of Appeals denial not only limits Brayton Point’s ability to market to new tenants, but local opposition may discourage future tenants.”
Somerset’s tax predicament is real. Tammy Pacheco, the treasurer/collector for the town, said Brayton Point accounted for 35 percent of the town’s tax levy in fiscal 2010, but since the plant was shuttered the property accounts for less than 2 percent of the levy. Tax revenue was $13.5 million in 2010 and $3.9 million in 2018. After Commercial Development took over, the tax revenue slid from $971,638 in 2019 to $668,277 in 2021. Commercial Development has challenged its assessment each of those years, claiming its tax payments are too high. No settlement has been reached yet.
Somerset has dealt with the loss of revenue over the last three years with nearly $10 million in aid from the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative, which assesses a fee on the carbon content of electricity consumed in Massachusetts and uses the money to further reduce emissions. The aid payments don’t technically fit those guidelines, but are meant to help communities like Somerset transition away from fossil fuels.
The payments are now coming to an end, and Somerset is faced with some tough choices. In broad terms, the town can let Commercial Development expand its operations and generate some additional tax revenue, or it can cut services and/or raise taxes to cope with the lower revenue streams coming from Brayton Point and the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative. Or the town can do a bit of both.
“In the world of unintended consequences, that’s what the Trump administration has wrought,” said Bruce Tobey, an attorney and former mayor of Gloucester who has been retained by Commercial Development.
Tobey thinks the state and federal government need to get involved in Somerset for the good of the town and for the future of the offshore wind industry. He said the state and federal governments can act as conveners in the short run, bringing together town residents, town officials, and Commercial Development.
In the medium to long-term, Tobey said, the state and federal government could play a bigger role in encouraging the growth of a supply chain for the offshore wind industry. Other states are investing in onshore facilities and using contracts for wind power to secure private investments as well. The Baker administration has so far prioritized price over onshore investments in its contract procurements.In a town like Somerset, that approach is having consequences. Tobey said the town doesn’t have a lot of options if it doesn’t bring in new businesses to replace the old ones.
“You either cut services or raise taxes. That’s ugly,” he said.