GROTON – In a tense meeting where councilors argued as much about procedure as they did data centers, the Groton Town Council voted to end negotiations with NE Edge over an agreement for a proposed large data center.
NE Edge owner Thomas Quinn had been pushing the council for a quick vote on a Host Municipality Fee Agreement that would outline more that $3.5 million of taxes and payments the company would make to the town to develop two, 250,000-square-foot data centers just south of Interstate 95.
But Quinn reversed course late last week as public opposition mounted, and instead asked the council to postpone a vote on the agreement so he could meet with neighbors to discuss their concerns, and so the council could consider changes to that agreement that would have NE Edge pay Groton a larger fee in lieu of property taxes – which Quinn lobbied the General Assembly to exempt data centers from last year.
In a 5-1 vote with three councilors abstaining, the council agreed to direct town staff to end its negotiations with NE Edge. Six councilors would need to agree in order to bring the proposal back to the table. Councilor Rachael Franco voted against, while Councilors David McBride, Juliette Parker and Scott Westervelt abstained, saying they needed more time to review the information.
The vote to end the negotiations was met with cheers from residents in the audience.
The project has drawn strong opposition from neighbors, from members of the public who have grown increasingly skeptical of fast-moving development in Groton, and from some council members who have called for the town to re-evaluate the speed of its development process.
Quinn, who lobbied the state legislature to pass the tax breaks for data centers last year, recently described a thin line that these businesses walk to develop energy-intensive businesses in a state with some of the highest electric costs in the country, while testifying against a bill that would limit emissions from diesel generators.
Quinn has told the council that a diesel generator would be used rarely for “peak shaving” – a practice where energy-intensive businesses use their own generators so they can avoid costly spikes in electricity use. Still, the use of generators near a residential area was a concern for neighbors. Noise was also a common concern, among neighbors and council members.
In lieu of property taxes – from which a law passed last year exempts large data centers – NE Edge would agree to pay $3.5 million a year for their two proposed buildings, the company said in a news release Friday.
That fee would increase by $250,000 a year after the first five years, with the additional funds earmarked for tech-related programs at Grasso Technical High School and Fitch High School. The original agreement would have paid the town $3 million a year – $1.5 million for each building.
The town has already approved a similar agreement from GotSpace to open the door to data centers off of Route 117, near the proposed NE Edge site. Quinn was CEO of GotSpace when that agreement was reached, but is no longer a part of that company.
No trust in the process
In the first meeting where councilors openly discussed their opinions on the NE Edge proposal, conversation turned towards issues with the process.
Franco questioned why NE Edge had not been called to answer questions before the council. She said that she was not opposed to data centers in general, but had major concerns about how sound from the centers would affect the community, and wanted to hear from the developer.
“We have not asked or invited the developers to sit at our table to answer any questions, which we have done with every development process that comes our way, so that we can ask questions or they can make a statement,” Franco said.
Franco said that the council’s approach to end discussions with NE Edge sent a negative signal to businesses that might want to come to Groton.
“What we’re saying to businesses that come to us asking for something, whether we say yes or no, it’s, ‘We don’t want to talk to you, go away,’” Franco said.
Councilor Portia Bordelon continued to question why public comment was not allowed at the meeting, an issue she had raised at earlier meetings on the agreement. She also criticized Quinn for sending in changes to the agreement on Friday, giving the council and town staff little time to review them before the meeting.
“This is why I feel there is a disconnect,” Bordelon said. “We need to slow down, re-look at our process here, and figure out ways to make sure we’re properly engaging with the councilors and the community.”
McBride agreed that the process was rushed, and urged the council to postpone a vote on ending negotiations with NE Edge to its meeting next week, to give town attorneys time to review the language and make sure it didn’t open the town up to lawsuits.
An earlier town opinion had recommended against listing a specific address in the motion to end negotiations, since it could be seen as making a land use decision that the council did not have the authority to make. The motion the council voted on did not include an address, but included a general description of where the property was: “between Hazlenut Hill Road and Flanders Road, south of I-95.”
“I’m not saying I’m in support of the current location, and I’m not saying I’m in support of the developer,” McBride said. “I’m simply stating that more work needs to be done before any long-term decisions can be completed.”
Councilor Aundré Bumgardner said he didn’t believe the council was opening itself to lawsuits since NE Edge could go to Planning and Zoning to seek approval for a data center any time. NE Edge was coming to the council asking for it to agree to let the company have a tax break to build a center, he said.
“There is nothing wrong with Mr. Quinn, NE Edge, or any data center from coming into town and going through normal zoning approvals,” Bumgardner said. “The reason they do not is because the state legislature granted tailor-made, very sweet tax abatements to data centers.”
Some councilors also questioned why several members of the council met with Quinn outside of a public meeting to discuss the project.
NE Edge said in a news release that Quinn had reached out to all but one councilor, and met with four councilors to discuss their concerns with the agreement last week. Bumgardner and Bordelon both took issue with the “ex parte” communications, saying councilors shouldn’t be talking with developers outside of public meetings.
“In no way do I find it ethical or okay for developers to have conversations with people who are supposed to be the safeguards of the public trust,” Bumgardner said. “I will never have those conversations. I refuse.”
Westervelt said he was one of the councilors to meet with Quinn. He said he felt it was his “duty to hear him out,” and said he had not been able to hear directly from Quinn without talking to him.
“I don’t think I did anything wrong in speaking with him,” Westervelt said. “I’ve also spoken to neighbors who have differing opinions on that as well, some in favor, and some are not.”