UTG reject Seneca Wind

copyright the Chronicle January 15, 2014

by Paul Lefebvre

FERDINAND — Community opposition in three of the most remote northern towns of the Northeast Kingdom have shut the door on hosting what would have been the third industrial wind project planned for the region’s ridgelines.

On Monday, the Unified Towns and Gores (UTG) joined Brighton and Newark in rejecting a proposal to build a ridgeline wind project on Seneca Mountain.

The decision came on the strength of a referendum mailed to property owners, whose ballots were counted in the UTG office in Ferdinand Monday night.

By a margin of 171 to 107, voters rejected the project and left little choice but for the UTG five-member board of governors to follow suit.

“The board has agreed to support the vote, and that’s what we intend to do,” said Chairman Barbara Nolan, after the results of the vote were announced.

There was also little room to maneuver for Eolian Renewable Energy, the company that had been spearheading a project that came to be known as Seneca Mountain Wind (SMW).  The company had repeatedly vowed that the project would rise or fall on the results of the vote.

“We are committed to abide by the local vote,” said a disappointed John Soininen, a company vice-president who was present during the counting of the ballots.

In a later interview, he rejected a reporter’s conclusion that the defeat would cause the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, company to pull up stakes and leave Vermont.  Instead, he said:  “We won’t move a project forward without local support.”

A press release from the company suggested the area might have not seen the last of SMW. The release issued Monday night said the company “will need to evaluate the results and consider our options before moving forward.

“For now, we recognize that there are local concerns.  In the end we hope that there is a viable project that can achieve local support and bring the myriad benefits of wind energy to Ferdinand and the UTG.”

Mr. Soininen declined to estimate how much wind developers had spent on bringing the Seneca Mountain project to this point.

There were smiling faces Monday night among those who had formed and joined citizen groups to fight the project.  Members of Save Our Senecas (SOS) and Newark Neighbors United (NNU) were on hand to witness the results.

Earlier, the groups had sent one of their own, Valerie Desmarais of Burke, to monitor the ballot count that was conducted behind closed doors.  As soon as the tally was completed, she sent e-mails that succinctly managed to convey how polarizing the issue had become.  The e-mails read:  171, us; 107, them.

For some, the fight, which began roughly two years ago, may have left too many fences to be mended and too many bruised feelings to be healed before Monday night’s vote could be treated as a victory.

“Communities have been torn apart, lawsuits have been filed, and the neighbors have been drawn into the crossfire of this expensive and vitriolic battle,” said NNU moderator Ben Bangs of Newark in a press release handed out Monday night.

“We’re hoping that SMW will do as they promised and leave quietly now, so that we can start the process of healing.”

Quotes in the press release from other NNU members called for “Vermont-sized, common-sense alternatives” and expressed concern that Eolian would not keep its word.

Pamela Arborio of Brighton, one of the leaders of the opposition, credited volunteers and contributors for securing the victory.

“Luckily, we had some good supporters,” she said, adding that the citizen groups in the fight had received donations from all over the world.

Planning Board Chairman Kim Fried of Newark, who led his town’s fight against the project, said Tuesday that groups opposing the project had easily spent over $100,000.  The lion’s share of that amount was spent on legal fees, including representation before the Public Service Board (PSB) and Newark’s costs in fighting a civil suit brought by a property owner over the town plan to keep industrialized turbines off ridgelines.

Still uncertain is what the vote will mean for a pending appeal before the Vermont Supreme Court over the PSB’s decision to allow wind developers to erect three towers to measure the wind and other meteorological conditions on Seneca Mountain.

Mr. Soininen said it was too early for his company to make any decision on what it would do.  Still keeping his composure, he called the Ferdinand vote disappointing for his company and a setback for those in the renewable energy industry who want to fight climate change and global warming.

“It’s a sad day for Vermonters,” he said, speaking of the mounting opposition to industrial wind and solar projects.

But Noreen Hession of Newark had a different take on the outcome, and one that could characterize the underlying differences between the two sides.  She said Monday’s vote was not a denial of climate change but rather one that rejected “corporate greed” and the “industrialization of one of Vermont’s most fragile wildlife areas.”

Although SMW’s project never got beyond the planning stage, it called for erecting 20 turbines with the capacity of producing 60 MW of power. Once the project had been built, developers promised to make an annual payment of $600,000 to the UTG.  And as an added incentive, which opponents quickly characterized as a bribe, developers further promised to pay UTG residents $900 apiece if the project won local support.

UTG Chairman Nolan said that, of the ballots received, there were four abstentions and seven were discarded for missing the postmarked deadline of December 12, 2013.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com

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