Editorial: It’s the Chronicle’s fortieth birthday — thanks everyone!

A solid reminder of how we used to operate — an old manual typewriter — sits in a corner of the Chronicle office.  The hat belonged to Anna Baker, the artist responsible for the Chronicle cows, and on the wall behind it is a copy of the original flyer announcing the start of a new newspaper, the Chronicle.  Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

A solid reminder of how we used to operate — an old manual typewriter — sits in a corner of the Chronicle office. The hat belonged to Anna Baker, the artist responsible for the Chronicle cows, and on the wall behind it is a copy of the original flyer announcing the start of a new newspaper, the Chronicle. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle March 26, 2014

This week, March 28, is the Chronicle’s fortieth birthday.  Chris and Ellen Braithwaite produced that first edition on typewriters in an Albany farmhouse.  It had stories about Orleans Village winning a lawsuit, cuts to the Lake Region Union High School budget, an obituary, a review of a gardening book written by former West Glover resident Carey Scher — in other words, pretty much the same sort of things we’re still writing about all these years later.

That first paper was by no means fancy.  It was a mere eight pages, put out by relative newcomers to the area on antiquated equipment amidst small children, a mongrel dog, and, according to its first reporter, Colin Nickerson, monstrous spiders that the Braithwaites refused to kill on the grounds that they were natural insecticide.

But some people bought that very first Chronicle — and much to our surprise, some of them have continued to buy it every single week for the past 40 years.

Continue reading

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Chris Braithwaite will be in NENPA Hall of Fame

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Chris Braithwaite, hard at work at the Chronicle office working on this week’s newspaper, in Barton Tuesday. Photo by Bethany M. Dunbar

copyright the Chronicle 1-15-2014

by Bethany M. Dunbar

BARTON — Chronicle founder and publisher Chris Braithwaite will be inducted into the New England Newspaper and Press Association (NENPA) Hall of Fame in February.

Mr. Braithwaite and five other newspaper professionals will be honored at the NENPA winter convention and annual meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, on February 7. Continue reading

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Editorial: No retreat

President Obama was right to stand his ground while the government was shut down by the U.S. House of Representatives, which is controlled by the Republican Party, which is controlled by its extreme right wing.

To give in would have been to turn the government over to minority rule by a group united in its hatred of government.  As Senator Bernie Sanders has said, to give up part of Obama Care to avoid the shutdown would only invite the House to use its absolute control over the budget to pick off the next program it decides to hate — Social Security, say, or Medicare.

Sensing, perhaps, that they have misjudged the public mood, the Republicans are now trying to choreograph a slow retreat.  Their leaders propose to fund the most popular federal services — the national parks were on the bargaining table Tuesday night — while leaving the programs they most dislike begging.

If the Democrats agree to play that game, the result will be the same.  The Republicans will fund just exactly as much government as they want, of exactly the sort they want.  That would seem pretty much like running the country.  In their effort to do that through the electoral process, the Republicans missed a couple of steps, like the Senate and the presidency.

The Democrats need to hang tough in this crisis.  The Republicans need to answer a question posed during a recent, unrelated argument by Barton Village Trustee David White:  “Why can’t we all put our big boy pants on?”

And as long as we’re excoriating people, we’re puzzled by the gag order that padlocked federal agencies have imposed on their idle employees.

Why shouldn’t we know about the services they are unable to provide?  Why shouldn’t we know how this has affected their lives and their families?

Fact is, they and the rest of us are being screwed by the devious, anti-democratic machinations of the right-wing rump of the Republican Party.  And everybody should have the right to say so. — C.B.

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Peter Miller captures Vermont characters

The late Carroll Shatney, on the cover of Peter Miller’s new book.

The late Carroll Shatney, on the cover of Peter Miller’s new book.

A Lifetime of Vermont People, with photographs and text by Peter Miller; 208 pages in hardback; published by Silver Print Press; $49.95.

Reviewed by Chris Braithwaite

Any Northeast Kingdom resident who picks up Peter Miller’s extraordinarily handsome new book will see a lot of familiar faces.

Anne and Jack Lazor come up first, and Mr. Miller’s nighttime photograph of their Butterworks Farm in Westfield is among the best in the book.

That’s a surprise, because A Lifetime of Vermont People, as the name suggests, is a collection of portraits, supplemented with Mr. Miller’s insightful commentaries on his subjects.

Next up is Peter Johnson of Pete’s Greens in Craftsbury.  Then there’s a shot of one of fisherman Roger Elkins’ favorite spots, the Willoughby River falls in Orleans.

There’s a charming portrait of Peter and Elka Schumann at their home overlooking Bread and Puppet Theater in Glover, closely followed by an iconic shot of Bill Royer playing his fiddle at a Sheffield Old Home Day, accompanied on the banjo by a shockingly young Burt Porter of Glover.

Greensboro Bend farmer Carroll Shatney, who died in 2009, is on the book’s cover.  Colleen Goodridge and her sons pose at their cedar mill in Albany; brewmaster Shaun Hill chats with his father in Greensboro; the poet David Budbill meditates under a tree at his home in Wolcott; and novelist Howard Frank Mosher, rod in hand, strolls back to his Irasburg home from a fishing expedition.

The 60 profiles Mr. Miller includes in his book pretty much cover the state of Vermont.  But its generous proportion of Kingdom characters reflects the photographer’s fondness for the area.

Indeed, he said while waiting for a book signing session to get underway at The Galaxy Bookshop in Hardwick Friday evening, he’s looking for a new home in the area.

Mr. Miller has lived in Colbyville, near Waterbury, since 1968.  But the ever-increasing traffic on Route 100 is finally getting to him.

And the Kingdom may turn out to be the final habitat of the quarry Mr. Miller has been stalking through his long career in photography.

“We are losing those Vermonters who have made this state unique,” he writes in his introduction.  “These are the people who love their state for its beauty, but they revere it more for the freedom and privacy it has given them.  Most of the Vermonters I grew up with are farmers, woodsmen, and craftspeople.  They are self-employed and self-reliant.”

Mr. Miller’s decision to present his portraits in black and white — though he shoots them in color with a digital camera — underlines the emphasis he puts on the state’s character, rather than its ever-so-well-documented scenic beauty.

It was the right decision, and it gives his new book a timeless quality that reflects the five decades he has spent capturing the spirit of the odd souls he so admires.

It began in 1959 with Will and Rowena Austin of Weston.  Mr. Miller was a neighbor who dropped by to visit the Austins on their front porch, carrying along his twin-lens Roliflex.

The farm couple is on the cover of Mr. Miller’s 1990 collection, Vermont People, and they appear again in his new book.

But A Lifetime of Vermont People is much enriched by the author’s notes that follow some of his profiles.  It is here that the photographer talks about that problem faced by everyone who works with a camera — the reluctant subject:

“I was a shy kid, more comfortable alone in the woods, but I felt at home with Will and Rowena.  I asked if I could take some photographs.

“‘Why sure,’ said Will.

“‘Goodness NO!’ said Rowena.  She stood, plucked up her dress and flounced into the house.  What they didn’t know is that, while talking, I photographed each with the camera in my lap.”

Rowena eventually came around, and one of the finest photographs in the book is of her making her way up the path to her house with the mail on a winter’s morning — a stout old woman leaning on her cane while a young cat, Canon Ball, prances behind her.

Another such note reveals that Mr. Miller worked for one of the twentieth century’s greatest photographers, Yousuf Karsh, of Ottawa, Canada.

Mr. Karsh took formal, carefully posed portraits of some of his era’s most famous people.  Mr. Miller decided he was more interested in photojournalism, and left his mentor for a stint with Life Magazine before turning to freelance work.

But, he notes, he assimilated a lot from Mr. Karsh:

“I learned to read a face and fathom a personality, how to hold a conversation with my subjects and show them respect.  I use a tripod (most of the time) and set off the camera with a cable release so I stand and face my subject as Karsh did.  On my own I learned how to combine a persona with their environment.”

Those were lessons well learned, and the results, in Mr. Miller’s new book, are well worth seeing.

Peter Miller is one of three Vermont photographers whose work is currently featured at the Old Stone House in Brownington.  “Visions of Place” includes the work of Peter Miller, John Miller and Richard Brown.  It will be at the museum through October 13, from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m., Wednesday through Sunday.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Reviews pages. For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Editorial: A sad echo from across the sea

“They’re still at it!”

That’s what we said when we read the astounding news that on September 5, almost three decades after Vermont State Police raided the Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Island Pond and seized its children, it happened again in southern Germany.

Again it was an early dawn raid on the group, which now calls itself the Twelve Tribes.  Again, the children were taken away by police who said they had “fresh evidence indicating significant and ongoing child abuse by the members.”

We imagine that our outraged amazement that they’re still at it was shared by two groups of Vermonters.

For one group, no doubt the larger group, “They” are the police and the State they serve.  And what they’re at is the persecution of a religious community for straying outside the norms of our society.

For the second group, largely made up of people closer to the story, people who perhaps had friends or relatives living with the group in Island Pond, “They” are the adults in that community.  And what they’re at is the systematic abuse of their own children, using slender wooden sticks of the sort used to hold balloons at birthday parties.

For the record, here’s what the Twelve Tribes says on its website, under “frequently asked questions,” about how it disciplines its children:

“When they are disobedient or intentionally hurtful to others we spank them with a small reed-like rod, which only inflicts pain and not damage.”

In Vermont it was evidence of the use of these rods, which left welts on small bodies in beatings that were sometimes very lengthy, sometimes severe, that finally led authorities to resort to the raid.

District Judge Frank Mahady ruled, in 1983 after presiding over a custody battle between a father who left the group and a mother who remained, that the children “were subjected to frequent and methodical physical abuse by adult members of the community, in the form of hours-long whippings with balloon sticks.”

District Judge Joseph Wolchik, after reviewing a large collection of evidence and allegations, signed a warrant ordering police to conduct the raid of June 22, 1984.

But at the Orleans County Courthouse that afternoon, Judge Mahady ruled that the raid was unconstitutional and sent the children home to Island Pond.

Governor Richard Snelling said at the time he would submit the constitutional issue to the Vermont Supreme Court, but changed his mind.

So as a legal matter, that’s how things stand to this day.  Two judges of equal authority disagreed.  No higher court has ever resolved their dispute.

That’s a problem, because the reconciliation of practices based on sincere religious belief and laws that prohibit such practices is a difficult constitutional issue.

There can be no doubt that the adults in the Island Pond community believed they were following God’s will.  And there can be no doubt that they were breaking the laws crafted to protect this society’s most vulnerable members.

There were people, in the aftermath of the raid, who saw the need to tackle the problem, to try and draft laws that would protect children using methods less drastic than a frightening pre-dawn raid.  But public reaction against the raid was strong enough to marginalize anyone who tried to continue the discussion.

It was a stunning victory for the Island Pond community, and we said so on June 27, 1984:

“We hope we’re wrong, but can’t shake off the feeling that those children are out of the reach of the state of Vermont once and for all.  Not out of the reach of some awesome, totalitarian power.  But out of the reach of a community that surrounds them, cares for them and weeps for them.”

Maybe this time, for a different generation of children in a different country, things will work out better. — C.B.

To read the Chronicle story on the Twelve Tribes raid in Germany, click here.

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German police seize Twelve Tribes children

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In this Chronicle file photo, a Vermont state trooper carries a bundle of wooden rods out of a restaurant owned by the Island Pond community on June 22, 1984.

In this Chronicle file photo, a Vermont state trooper carries a bundle of wooden rods out of a restaurant owned by the Island Pond community on June 22, 1984.

by Chris Braithwaite

BAVARIA, Germany — German police seized 40 children of the Twelve Tribes religious community here on September 5, according to press accounts.

The group is one of many international offshoots of the Northeast Kingdom Community Church in Island Pond, whose children were seized by Vermont State Police in a controversial raid on June 22, 1984.

Almost three decades later, German officials say they are investigating allegations that are almost identical to those that led to the Island Pond raid.  According to the British newspaper the Guardian, Germany sent 100 police officers to two of the sect’s complexes on the basis of “fresh evidence indicating significant and ongoing child abuse by the members.”

On its website, the Twelve Tribes acknowledges that adult members strike children with the thin wooden rods that troubled Vermont officials, though it denies that it abuses the children.

“When they are disobedient or intentionally hurtful to others, we spank them with a small reed-like rod, which only inflicts pain and not damage,” the website says.  “Desiring to be good parents, we do not hit our children in anger, nor with our hand or fist.”

Another British journal reported that German police were prompted to act after they were shown graphic scenes of adults beating six children in a basement room.  According to The Independent, the beatings were filmed by a journalist who claimed to be a “lost soul” to gain entry to the community, and used hidden video cameras and microphones.

His footage was shown on German television Monday night, The Independent said.  The program included an interview with a spokesman for the Bavarian youth welfare service who described the film as shocking.  “We never had proof that they do this,” he said.  “It is terrible, they preach peace but they beat their children.”

Vermont’s effort to seize and detain the sect’s children to look for evidence of physical abuse collapsed in the Orleans County Courthouse in Newport.  Judge Frank Mahady ruled that the state’s claim that all the children in the community were in danger of abuse was too vague to justify their emergency detention.  He sent them home to Island Pond that afternoon.

The sect has consistently denied that its children in Vermont were victims of physical abuse.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Brooks sentenced to 18 months for embezzling

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by Chris Braithwaite

BURLINGTON — Kim Brooks will serve 18 months in federal prison for embezzling more than $160,000 from her former employer in Orleans.

The 48-year-old Brownington woman was dismissed from her job at Desmarais Equipment in the spring of 2011 after an audit of the farm equipment dealer’s books revealed significant discrepancies.

She has since been an active volunteer with the Orleans County Fair, where she served on the board of directors.

Indeed, the thousands of hours Ms. Brooks donated to the fair were cited by two people who spoke on her behalf at her sentencing hearing in U.S. District Court here Monday.

Her attorney, David Sleigh, used their remarks as the basis of a request for a “downward departure” from federal sentencing guidelines that would have reduced her prison sentence to five months.

But Judge William Sessions was unmoved.  His remarks suggested that the fact that Ms. Brooks is “obviously an extraordinarily intelligent person” who enjoyed her community’s respect made her crime all the more serious.

“How can someone who is so respected commit such a flagrant violation of trust?” the judge asked before he handed down the 18-month sentence.  He said he would request that the sentence be served at a federal prison camp in Danbury, Connecticut, and ordered Ms. Brooks to surrender herself there on October 8.

Ms. Brooks was first cited to appear in state court in early 2012 following a State Police investigation.  Her case moved to U.S. District Court after a federal grand jury issued a three-count indictment in October 2012.

Ms. Brooks pled guilty to one count after negotiating a plea agreement with federal prosecutors in late April this year.

Judge Sessions waived any fine, which could have been as high as $250,000.  But as part of the plea agreement she was ordered to forfeit $11,885 to the government in a “preliminary order of forfeiture” issued by the court on Friday.

According to a press release from the U.S. Attorney’s office, Ms. Brooks must pay a total of about $163,000 in restitution.  Judge Sessions ordered her Monday to give up 10 percent of her future gross income for that purpose.

That was one of several conditions of a three-year term of supervised release the judge added to her prison sentence.  He also ordered Ms. Brooks to avoid work that involved any fiduciary responsibility.

The judge told Ms. Brooks he had considered several factors before passing sentence.  None of them seemed to work out in her favor.

“What was most important in my assessment is the level of planning,” he said.  “This is a case in which money was taken over three years,” he noted.  “It was not some casual act.  That level of calculation is extremely serious.”

Judge Sessions noted that Ms. Brooks had been working with a small company for 15 years, and knew that her embezzlement would make it impossible for her co-workers to get raises or bonuses.

“That’s a pretty flagrant violation of a person’s level of trust,” the judge remarked.  “That you could go to work, knowing full well you have been stealing from them for years, is inconceivable to me,” he added.

Turning to deterrence, the judge said embezzlement cases have become so common in Vermont that “some have referred to it as an epidemic.”

“There needs to be a statement to the community that these violations of trust are treated seriously,” Judge Sessions said.  “There needs to be a clear understanding by people who are in charge of other people’s money that to steal it is a serious crime.”

The brothers whose business was the victim of the crime, Rene and Roger Desmarais, both had a chance to speak to the court Monday.

“We were in business for 49 years and had a lot of good help — people you trusted,” Roger Desmarais said.  “Apparently we had a silent partner we didn’t know anything about.”

He said the loss cut into the price the brothers got when they sold their business.  “We weren’t showing the profit we should have been,” he said.

He recalled the day an accountant “figured out something was wrong,” and confronted Ms. Brooks.

“She said she had made some mistakes in life.  She was as cool as could be,” Mr. Desmarais said.

Reading from a pre-sentence investigation that was not made public, Judge Sessions said that Rene Desmarais felt humiliated by the case, a feeling that was “fueled by her arrogant public behavior.”

After Ms. Brooks was caught, the judge asked Roger Desmarais, “was she acting in an arrogant way?”

“No,” Mr. Desmarais replied.  “Kim was being Kim.”

“We considered her a real friend,” Rene Desmarais said when it was his turn to talk.  He said the crime also affected 12 to 14 people who worked for the dealership.  They got no raises for four or five years, he said.  “At the end of the year there was no profit to distribute.”

The judge asked Rene Desmarais if Ms. Brooks was arrogant after her crime was revealed.

“If I was accused of doing what she did, there’s no way I would have flaunted myself,” Mr. Desmarais replied.  “She goes on as if nothing ever happened.”

Judge Sessions established the fact that Ms. Brooks hadn’t paid any of the money back since her crime was discovered in early 2011.

Ms. Brooks’ attorney, David Sleigh, took responsibility for that.  He routinely warned his clients against contacting their alleged victims before the criminal case was settled, he told the judge.

Two friends were in the courtroom to speak for Ms. Brooks.

Lori Royer said her friendship with the defendant went back to their high school days.  “She did a lot for the fair,” Ms. Royer said.  “She kept the harness racing alive and well.”

“She’s got a very kind heart,” Ms. Royer said of Ms. Brooks.  “She’s a very good person.”

Judge Sessions asked if the two had talked about the criminal case.

No, Ms. Royer replied.  “Rene’s my neighbor, Kim’s my friend, we just don’t talk about it.”

Randy Patenaude told the judge he had worked with Ms. Brooks at the fair, and that she had also cared for his mother, who suffered a serious stroke.

“Without her motivation, my mother would not be where she is now,” he said of Ms. Brooks’ care.

“Kim devoted thousands of hours to the Orleans County Fair,” Mr. Patenaude said, “not for any glorification or monetary gain.”

Mr. Sleigh did not argue that his client should not go to jail, but urged the court to shorten the term from the federal guideline of 18 to 24 months.

“Kim for years has given enormously to her community,” the attorney said.  “It is hard to overestimate the importance of the Orleans County Fair to the community.”

“Little of the wrongful taking wound up as a benefit to Kim,” Mr. Sleigh added.

The judge pursued that issue.  He noted that three checks involved in the crime had gone to her partner, for a total of close to $45,000.

“Where did that money go?” the judge demanded.

During a later exchange with Ms. Brooks, Judge Sessions said the three checks went to Harvey Cleveland, Ms. Brooks partner and, until he stepped down in July, president of the Orleans County Fair.

“What were they used for?” the judge asked.

“One, and a significant portion of another, was sent to Ohio to assist someone I knew,” Ms. Brooks replied.

According to the grand jury indictment, “$11,885 in proceeds from one of these unauthorized checks was used to purchase a used truck in Ohio.”

“One went to a young farmer who was trying to start up a business,” Ms. Brooks continued.  “At the time I anticipated it was coming back,” she said of the money.  “I found out that was not true.  I never received any of the money back.”

Then Ms. Brooks turned to face the Desmarais brothers and their wives.

“I’m sorry I betrayed your trust,” she told them.  “I’m sorry for losing your friendship.  I will do everything I can to pay you back.”

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

For more free articles from the Chronicle like this one, see our Editor’s Picks pages.  For all the Chronicle’s stories, pick up a print copy or subscribe, either for print or digital editions.

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Lowell wind: Neighbors sick and tired of turbine noise

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Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany.  The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Rita and Paul Martin at their home on the Eden Road in Albany. The Lowell Mountain turbines dominate the view behind them, though the camera used in this photo was barely able to capture them. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Chris Braithwaite

ALBANY — Jim and Kathy Goodrich have a nice home with a porch along the entire west side that overlooks acres of neatly trimmed lawn and, about a mile away, the long, sinuous ridgeline known as Lowell Mountain.

Now that view is dominated by the 21 towers of the Lowell wind project, their blades reaching 460 feet high.  And the house is for sale at a discounted price.

“What I came here for is gone,” said Ms. Goodrich, a Wolcott native who worked for IBM in Chittenden County and then spent ten years with her husband in a landscaping business.

“This was going to be where I spent the rest of my life — quiet, peaceful, relaxed,” Ms. Goodrich continued.  “But I can’t stay here.”

One of the features their home has lost is the quiet, the couple says.

“Sometimes they’re really loud,” Ms. Goodrich said.  In one hot spell, with the bedroom windows open and two fans running, she recalls, “I could hear them over everything.  It was some kind of roar.”

“It’s really hard to explain what it sounds like,” Mr. Goodrich said.  “To me, it’s mechanized gears, but mixed in with a swoosh, swoosh, swoosh.”

He suspects that the turbines often exceed the limits imposed when the state Public Service Board (PSB) gave the project its certificate of public good.  Mr. Goodrich sounds unconvinced by Green Mountain Power’s claim that its turbines have remained within those limits — 45 decibels outside, 35 inside — 99 percent of the time since they began to spin in late 2012.

Ms. Goodrich thinks the noise limits miss the point.

“I don’t doubt that most of the time they’re in compliance,” she said Monday.  “But to me, those guidelines are too much for people to handle, hour after hour after hour.”

The couple is not sure whether the turbines are affecting their health.  Mr. Goodrich recently experienced blade flicker for the first time, as the sun set behind the turbines and cast their moving shadows into the house.

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Jim and Kathy Goodrich on their front porch, with Sophie. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

“That really irritated me,” he said.  As a young man, he said, he couldn’t go into a disco club because of the effect strobe lights had on him.  “That night it really freaked me,” he said of the flicker.

As for the noise, Mr. Goodrich said, “I’ve got an idea it’s affecting my health, but I don’t know.  I know it has an effect on our talking to each other.  I get cranky.  She gets cranky.”

“It’s frustrating,” Ms. Goodrich agreed.  “It’s beyond our control.  I can ask him to turn the TV down, but they don’t listen up there,” she added, gesturing to the turbines.

Underlying the couple’s personal concerns is their anger about the project’s environmental impact.

“For me it’s about what they did to the top of the mountain,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “I’m a Vermonter.  I respect what we have here.  Now that it’s there it’s the interrupted views, the noise, the stress it’s brought into our lives.  It’s everything.

“I wouldn’t have any problem in the world with green power,” she continued.  “But it seems that they took away more green than they’ll ever give back.”

The third member of the household, a small dog named Sophie, “gets really skittish when the turbines are noisy,” Ms. Goodrich said.  “At times I can’t get her to take a walk down the driveway.”

Molly Two lives just down the hill, where Goodrich Road meets the Eden Road.  The big dog sticks close to Paul Martin if he takes her outside when the turbines are running.  She has become gun shy, and she’s started going to the bathroom on the floor of the Martin house.

The Martins’ horses were spooked by the turbines at first, Mr. Martin said, but seem to have grown used to them now.

When the wind’s right they hear the turbines outside.  Mr. Martin described the noise as “just a big rumble like a jet.”

“With a lot of that thud, thud thud,” his wife, Rita, added.

When he goes outside, Mr. Martin said, “my ears will start ringing to beat hell.  They never did that before.”

As for Ms. Martin, he said, “She woke me up one night and said ‘My heart is pounding terrible.’  I could hear the thud thud from the towers.”

“For some reason my heart wanted to beat in that rhythm,” Ms. Martin recalled.

“We were told we wouldn’t hear them” by the people from Green Mountain Power, Mr. Martin said.

Since they’ve put an air conditioner in the bedroom the turbine noise doesn’t disturb their sleep, the Martins said, though they still hear them on some nights.

When they moved onto the Eden Road in 1974, their place was at the end of the road.  Now, the Martins say, people wanting to view the turbines generate considerable traffic past their home.

They say they’ve thought about moving, but are not sure they could sell their homestead.

“Who’d buy it?” Ms. Martin asked with a shrug.

“What most bothers me is the destruction it’s done on top of the mountain,” Mr. Martin said.

“Paul’s taken both our kids up the mountain,” before the turbines arrived, his wife said.  “Thank God he did, too.  It will never be the same.”

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

Shirley and Don Nelson flank a sign that is common in their neighborhood. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A bit closer to the turbines, at her home on the Bailey-Hazen Road, Shirley Nelson has a list of symptoms that have arrived since the wind project started spinning.  She has a ringing in her ears, and sometimes worse.

“This morning it felt like a pin sticking in my ear,” she said Monday.  “I have headaches, usually around my temples but sometimes like a band wrapped right around my head.

“One of my daughters gets migraines within an hour of visiting our house,” Ms. Nelson added.

“Both Donny and I wake up in the middle of the night because it sounds like something coming out of the pillow,” she said, referring to her husband, Don.  “I never said much about it, because I thought I was crazy.”

Then she found a research paper by Alec Salt, Ph.D., from Washington University in St. Louis, Missouri, entitled “Wind Turbines can be Hazardous to Human Health.”

He writes about very low frequency sound and infrasound, which wind turbines generate in turbulent winds.  “Our measurements show the ear is most sensitive to infrasound when other, audible sounds are at low levels or absent,” Dr. Salt writes.

Thus infrasound can be most troublesome when other sounds are blocked by house walls or even a pillow, he continues.  “In either case, the infrasound will be strongly stimulating the ear even though you will not be able to hear it.”

That can cause sleep disturbance, panic, and chronic sleep deprivation leading to high blood pressure, the paper says.

“Some days I am very tired,” Ms. Nelson wrote in an e-mail Monday.  It is hard to stay awake on such days, she added, and “it is hard to concentrate and I find I am unable to do simple things like balancing a checkbook.”

The Nelsons routinely see turbine flicker in their home as the sun goes behind the towers.  It sends shadows spinning slowly across their refrigerator, their floors and across the lawns outside.

“It’s just really annoying,” Ms. Nelson said.

Dislike of the turbines and their effects is not universal in the neighborhood.  Albert and Esther Weber live a little west of the Martins on the Eden Road, just across the Lowell town line.

“I hear them, but they’re not offensive to me,” Mr. Weber said.  “I figure the wind should do some good for a change.  The wind ripped the roof off my house.  It should make some electricity, and it should make our taxes go down.

“I love the windmills,” Ms. Weber said.  “I’ve always loved windmills since I was a girl in school, and learned about Holland.  When they said they were going to put some up here, I was thrilled.”

She likes to see the towers glowing on the mountain in the early morning light, and finds that the afternoon shadows flickering in the backyard “look kind of neat.”

Further down the road Carl Cowles said he hears the turbines almost all the time, and they bother him.  “I think I hear them more at night than in the daytime,” Mr. Cowles added.  “I do wake up, and I hear them.  I don’t know exactly what woke me up.”

When he’s not traveling around the world on business, Kevin McGrath lives on the other side of the mountain on the Farm Road in Lowell.  He recalls a visit from a friend, another Lowell resident who had voted in favor of the wind project.  Mr. McGrath was complaining about the turbine noise.

“He said, ‘We’ll listen for the noise as soon as the jet plane goes away.’  I said, ‘That is the noise.’”

“It sounds like a plane that never lands,” he said.  He measures the sound with a hand-held meter.

“At times it is under 45 decibels outside,” he reports.  “You don’t have anything to say.  This is the way it is.”

“People like myself, who have had the land for 20 or 25 years, aren’t used to this new intrusion into their lives.  If you have a leaky faucet in your sink, is it below 35 decibels?  Yes it is.  But not being able to turn it off will drive you crazy.  It’s an intrusion.”

Mr. McGrath has bombarded the Department of Public Service with complaints that the turbines have kept him and his guests awake at night.  He’s currently asking Green Mountain Power (GMP) for detailed data about wind speed and other weather conditions, which he wants to pass on to his own, independent noise expert.

“They’re kind of waffling on that,” he said of GMP in a telephone interview Tuesday.

“We’re talking to Kevin,” GMP spokesman Dorothy Schnure said Tuesday.  “We’re going to continue to talk with Kevin.”

But Ms. Schnure didn’t say GMP would provide the data he’s seeking.  Instead, she emphasized that the utility stands ready to test any home near the project, to see how much its structure reduces outside noise.  Then the utility would put an outside meter near the house, to provide an approximation of turbine noise inside the home.

So far, she said, “no one has taken us up on the offer.”

GMP announced last week that in a test period from May 22 to June 5 its project did not exceed the PSB noise limits.

However, in two earlier test periods noise exceeded the limits for a total of just over four hours, the release said.

The PSB has scheduled a hearing for August 8 to decide what sanctions should be imposed on GMP for the violations.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

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Sodden skies torment farmers

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides.  Photo by Chris Braithwaite

A horse grazes on what’s left of its pasture, along Elm Street in Barton, just as Tuesday’s downpour subsides. Photo by Chris Braithwaite

by Tena Starr

“It’s kind of a nightmare.”

That’s how Brandon Tanner of Glover described this summer’s weather and his own efforts to put in hay for his dairy cows.

“It’s one of those things where you’re forced this year to get what you can get when you can get it,” Mr. Tanner said.  “There’s no planning, no helping other people.  It’s sort of you do yours when you can do it the best you can.”

He said he managed to get his first cut, as usual, back in May.

“Soon as I got done haying we had a snowstorm,” he said.

Mr. Tanner isn’t alone in his frustration with this year’s odd weather and, lately, relentless rain.

Farmers, strawberry growers, boaters, anyone who enjoys a day at the beach — they’re all likely to say “Enough already.”

Although Mother Nature isn’t.

There’s some hope that by the end of the week the stubborn weather pattern will break down, permitting a couple of consecutive rain-free days by the weekend, said meteorologist Lawrence Hayes at the Fairbanks Museum in St. Johnsbury.

The problem, he said, is that Vermont has been stuck in between two upper level features involving a serpentine jet stream that moves northward.  The sources of its air is the Gulf of Mexico and the southeast coast, hence the subtropical air in Vermont.

Also, “the air has been so copiously humid (dew points around 70) that any shower that forms is risk of generating at least moderately heavy rain,” Mr. Hayes said by e-mail.

The result of all this has been a lot more rain than usual, as well as more rainy days, in both May and June.

According to the Chronicle’s weather records (which record weather in West Glover) precipitation in May was 7.88 inches — almost double the long-term average of 4.03 inches, and exceeded only in May of 2011.  It also snowed in May.  The Chronicle’s weather records go back to 1987.

In June, there was some rain in West Glover on 21 out of 30 days.  It added up to 6.23 inches, well above the long-term average for June of 4.14 inches.

In St. Johnsbury the 14-day stretch of measurable rainfall from June 23 to July 7 was the longest consecutive day stretch there during the warm weather season, meaning May through October, Mr. Hayes said.

For most, the soggy weather is simply an annoyance.  But for some, it has economic consequences, as well.

Peak View Berry Farm in Orleans doesn’t have any strawberries at all this year, although it’s not due to the wet weather that’s plagued so many strawberry growers in Vermont.

“We lost our strawberries in January when the thaw came and then it got so cold in February,” said Michelle Bonin, who owns the farm with her husband, Marcel.  “The thaw literally pushed all of our plants out of the ground.  That was something we’d never seen.”

The Bonins have since put in 13,000 new plants and are hoping to have a crop from the ever bearers in October.  But even tending the new plants is tough with the wet weather.

“A few days ago I wanted to cultivate my strawberries and couldn’t because of the mud,” Marcel Bonin said.  “The ground is saturated.  I’d have a mess.”

In Westfield, Gerard Croizet at Berry Creek Farm said he’s lost 20 to 25 percent of his strawberries to the weather, mold in particular.

The berries are big, although softer than usual, and the yield has been good, he said.

It could be a lot worse, though, Mr. Croizet said.  “I know some people lost most everything.”

“I’m not depressed,” he added.

Both the Croizets and the Bonins grow vegetables as well as berries, and say that weeding is a big problem with their fields so wet.  And while some crops are doing well in the subtropical weather, others are struggling.

Mr. Croizet said he’s worried about disease at this point, particularly late blight, which might make an early appearance due to the moisture.

“I don’t remember nonstop rain like that,” he said.

“I think it’s extraordinary, I think it’s quite dramatic for the whole area,” Mr. Bonin said about the unusually long stretch of rainy days.

He said his Orleans farm stand is usually open by the last week in June.  It’s not this year.  “I don’t have anything to put in it,” Mr. Bonin said.

For dairy farmers, the persistent rain not only makes it hard to make any hay, but also the quality suffers.

Most farmers make round bales these days — those plastic wrapped bales that resemble giant marshmallows.  It takes a comparatively short stretch of dry weather to make a round bale as opposed to a square one, but this summer has daunted even those attempts.

It takes at least a couple of days to “put up something that’s not going to be an ice cube,” Mr. Tanner said.

If the hay is too wet, it will be frozen solid come winter when the farmer wants to feed it to his animals, he said.

That’s one problem.  Another is that some fields are so wet farmers can’t even get on them to hay.

And yet another is that grass, especially orchard grass, declines in quality — meaning it loses protein — once it begins to head out.

“You can always supplement grains in order to make up what you lost on your grass, but especially the past three years, that’s been sort of unaffordable,” Mr. Tanner said.

He said that last year, a classic summer, he squeezed in five cuts of hay.  “This year, so far, I’ve done one.  I’ll be lucky if I get three.”

Evan Perron isn’t overly worried about the weather, even though he’s one of the few who still makes square bales.

“The hay I cut will be just fine, for horses, ponies, sheep, it will still be 10-12 percent…it’s nothing you could turn into milk and survive,” he said.

Mr. Perron said that when he was a kid it was common to wait until after July 4 to start haying.  “There was a time we might not have thought much of it,” he said about the long rainy stretch.  “We’d just be a week late.”

But now that people try to get 20 or 30 percent protein from their hay, “it’s a pretty big deal,” he said.

“I don’t think I ever recall such a soggy streak as this one.”

contact Tena Starr at tenas@bartonchronicle.com

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News analysis: The high cost of clean power

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by Chris Braithwaite

copyright the Chronicle 4-17-2013

BARTON — Solar energy may come to town soon at the Barton Solar Farm at 1603 Glover Road.  A fairly large project at 1.8 megawatts (MW), it would produce the amount of power consumed, on average, by more than 300 Vermont homes.

The project has no local permits yet, the developer said last week, and still faces the detailed scrutiny of the state Public Service Board under Section 248.  What it does have is acceptance as a SPEED program, a key ingredient in the state’s effort to make a major shift to renewable electric energy.

“We’ve come out of the gate,” said developer Robert Grant of Essex County, Massachusetts.  “Now we have to start running the gauntlet.”

Meanwhile the voters in Newport Center approved at Town Meeting a selectmen’s proposal for a $200,000 “Community Energy Solar Garden.”

Steve Mason, chairman of the Lowell School Board, is looking into working with a Westminster, Vermont, company called Soveren to install a solar system that would provide power to Lowell’s town and school buildings.  Under a deal with Brattleboro Schools that caught Mr. Mason’s eye, the schools will pay none of the capital cost, and save 10 percent on its energy bills.

And small solar installations are popping up at homes in the area at what looks like a steadily increasing pace.

The trend to solar energy is not being driven by the fact that, with no fuel required, it’s cheap energy.  It’s nothing of the kind.

But solar energy is clean energy, and in its haste to clean up Vermont’s electric energy supply, the state has compelled its utilities to buy solar energy at prices that make installations financially attractive.

Those premiums get passed on, through the utilities’ rate structure, to customers who don’t have solar panels on their roof or a wind turbine in their yard.

That’s a concern to some observers, who fear that the state’s strong embrace of renewable energy is based on more emotion than reason; that policies were adopted without due consideration of what they may ultimately cost.

There are, indeed, two programs in Vermont, SPEED and net metering, that pursue the goal of more renewable electric energy in different ways, and with no apparent coordination.

It also puzzles some energy critics that this battle to reduce the state’s carbon footprint, thus contributing to the effort against global warming, is focused on an energy sector that is already remarkably clean.  Vermonters use relatively little electricity.  Vermont residences, on average, consume 573 KWh of power a month, compared to a national average of 940 KWh.

In its “Vermont Greenhouse Gas Emissions Inventory,” the state Agency of Natural Resources said that, in 2008, electricity accounted for 4 percent of the 8.37 metric tons of carbon dioxide the state releases into the atmosphere.  The bulk of carbon dioxide came from heating and transportation.

The end of contracts with the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant may have altered that picture since 2008, but utilities have turned to other nuclear plants to make up at least some of the difference.

One concerned observer is Willem Post, a frequent source of widely disseminated e-mails on the Vermont energy picture.  In a recent interview, Mr. Post said he is a mechanical engineer with 40 years’ experience in the utility business.

Mr. Post is concerned about a program called SPEED, which stands for Sustainably Priced Energy Development.  It supports moderate to very large renewable projects by offering premium prices for their power.

Any sort of renewable energy gets a premium price compared with the current wholesale price on the New England grid of about 5 cents a kilowatt hour (KWh).  But solar power sits at the top of the heap at five times that rate, 27.5 cents per KWh.  Other prices, freshly recalibrated by the PSB for SPEED’s Standard Offer program, range down to a “levelized” price (which starts lower and climbs higher over 20 years) of 25.3 cents for wind projects over 100 KW, 11.8 cents for larger wind projects, 14.1 cents for farm methane, 12.5 cents for biomass, 12.3 cents for hydro, and 9 cents for landfill methane.

SPEED projects that exceed the 2.2 MW limit of the standard offer program negotiate rates with the utilities, like the 40 MW Sheffield wind project, or are owned by the utilities themselves, like Green Mountain Power’s 63 MW Lowell project.  (One megawatt is 1,000 kilowatts.)

The 2017 SPEED goal, according to its Internet site, “is to have 20 percent of total statewide electric retail sales during the year commencing January 1, 2017, generated by SPEED resources that constitute new renewable energy.”

Vermont consumes about 5.5 million MWh of power a year, so the SPEED goal is about 1.1 million MWh.

According to a recent status report, SPEED projects are already generating an estimated 570,843 MWh, a little over half its target.

That total comes overwhelmingly from big projects outside the Standard Offer Program.  Led by Lowell Mountain, nine big projects are expected to make more than half a million MWh a year, while about 30 Standard Offer projects make about 54,000 MW.

Another 213,162 MWh are expected from SPEED projects “in active development,” about evenly split between four large projects and various standard offer projects.

That would bring total SPEED production to 784,000 MWh, 316,000 MWh short of its goal.

Existing Standard Offer projects lean heavily to farm methane (14) and solar (12).  But on a list of pending projects that will take advantage of high Standard Offer Prices 18 are solar, five farm methane, and three hydro.

The clear preference for solar power worries Mr. Post, the engineer, because of its high, 27.5-cent cost to utilities.

He calculates that the Standard Offer projects already online cost utilities — and their customers — $3.4-million above the average New England grid power price in 2012.

If enough solar Standard Offer project were permitted to meet the SPEED goal, he calculates, the excess cost would rise beyond $50-million in 2017.  And that doesn’t count the cost of the big projects like Lowell, he notes.

In SPEED, he sees a program that was not rationally designed, and is running on autopilot.

He uses the metaphor of a frog in a frying pan of water, with the stove on.  The effect may be gradual, he said, “but it will eventually ruin the Vermont economy.  We will end up with rates that are significantly higher than other states, put ourselves at a further disadvantage.”

But the man who bears the title of Vermont SPEED Facilitator, John Spencer, said Monday that, with their relatively small, 2.2 MW maximum size, Standard Offer projects can’t close the gap between SPEED’s target and its current and scheduled production.  That would mean that the expensive solar projects Mr. Post worries about can’t be hurried forward at the rate he fears.

Mr. Spencer is executive director of a non-profit called VEPP, Inc., that serves as a sort of broker between SPEED producers and the utilities.

Under state law, he said, “I can only take Standard Offer programs at the rate of five MW a year.”

When it comes up against a capacity limit, solar energy is hampered by its low capacity factor of 15 percent.

Five MW of solar power would yield about 6,570 MWh a year.

To fill that 316,000 MWh gap by January 1, 2017, SPEED needs to add about 105,000 MWh a year.

So where will the renewable power come from?

Probably from out of state, Mr. Spencer said.

That is apparently a loophole in the program that has been devised to close the gap.  In 2011, when the Lowell Wind project was being debated before the Public Service Board, the SPEED program was key to its economic justification, and SPEED projects were defined then as in-state renewable generation.

But, somewhat to Mr. Spencer’s dismay, “in-state” has been dropped from the definition.  Energy from new renewable projects in other states can be counted toward the SPEED goal, Mr. Spencer said, as long as they carry their renewable energy credits with them when they cross the state line.  Vermont utilities don’t need those credits, so can sell them to utilities in other states.

Robert Dostis, head of external affairs and customer relations at Green Mountain Power, confirmed Tuesday that his utility is buying SPEED power from Granite Reliable Wind, a New Hampshire project.

That will help GMP meet its 20 percent target, Mr. Dostis said.  “It won’t be easy, but we’re working on it.”

 

Net metering

 

Net metering is a program designed for smaller renewable projects that are linked directly into a utility’s lines through a meter that spins backwards when the customer doesn’t need all the power he or she is producing.

For wind, methane or hydro systems, net metering offers the local utility’s retail rate for power from small renewable projects up to 500 kilowatts (KW) — compared with the 2,200 KW limit on SPEED Standard Offer projects.  But people who install solar panels get a premium big enough to assure them a rate of 20 cents per KWh, a bit above the state’s average residential rate of 17.7 cents.

Not surprisingly, solar installations account for 88 percent of net metered projects, and are driving a growth rate in the program that the state’s Public Service Department (PSD) recently described as “exponential.”

Net metering goes back to 1998 in Vermont, though limits on the size of both individual projects and their total statewide capacity have been increased several times.

In a recent report on the program to the Legislature, the PSD noted that the statewide limit on net metering was raised from 1 percent to 2 percent of Vermont’s peak load of about 1,000 MW in 2002, and that was doubled again to 4 percent in 2011.

In terms of capacity, the PSD said, net metering has climbed past 20 MW statewide, and so is approximately halfway to its current 40 MW limit.

However because it is so heavily weighted to solar power with its low 15 percent capacity factor, net metering accounts for considerably less than 1 percent of the state’s power consumption.

Net metering is growing fast in other parts of the state.  A state list of projects “deemed approved” from the first of this year through mid-March listed 136 statewide, but only one in Orleans County.

For people who have the means to do it themselves, net metering can be attractive.  Mr. Spencer, the SPEED facilitator, installed one at his home for $15,000.  Federal tax credits and state rebates reduced his cost to $10,500, he said, and he hopes the system will eliminate his electric bill of about $1,200 a year.  He calculates a return on investment of about 12 percent, a rate, he notes that is “pretty hard to get in other places.”

For people who want to avoid the up-front cost or the complexity of installing their own system, companies like AllEarth Renewables and its competitors stand ready to install one at no cost.  The homeowner gets a guarantee that his or her electric rates won’t rise, and the installer gets whatever tax credits, rapid depreciation and state rebates are available.

AllEarth has more recently teamed up with Green Lantern Capital to offer such deals to municipalities and non-profits like schools and hospitals that pay no income taxes.  In these deals, the tax advantages go to Green Lantern’s investors, and the municipality is offered a modest saving on its electricity and a chance to buy the system at less than half its cost after seven years.

With such a deal on the table, said AllEarth spokesman Andrew Savage, “there is no sane reason an entity that doesn’t pay taxes would bond for the full cost of a project.”

Mr. Post, the energy policy critic, objects to the idea that the many projects are being financed by millionaires who, while their consumers harvest the power of the sun, are harvesting the substantial tax benefits attached to renewable projects, along with the high rates.

Meanwhile, he said in one e-mail, ordinary Vermonters are saddled with higher power rates.

The DPS study was undertaken to answer just that question from a legislator:  “…whether and to what extent customers using net metering systems… are subsidized by other retail electric customers who do not….”

The study found that they were not.  But that was only after a cash value was factored in to reflect the fact that renewable energy doesn’t generate harmful greenhouse gasses.

Without that calculation, the study showed that net metering costs exceeded its benefits by 0.6 cents a KWh for fixed solar installations, 1.5 cents per KWh for solar systems that track the sun, and 9.1 cents for a 100KW wind generator.

Rian Fried has made a close study of renewable energy for his company, Clean Yield Asset Management, which evaluates investment opportunities for its clients in terms of both financial return and social value.

The company decided some time ago not to recommend any large wind projects, but has invested in solar companies.  Mr. Fried recently installed a net metered system at his home in Stannard.

But he’s not sure anyone at the state policy level has a handle on the long-term effects of our pursuit of clean energy.

“I think you have a political situation in this state now, where the Green Mountain Power people, Shumlin’s people, Paul Burns (the head of the Vermont Public Interest Research Group) and a lot of Progressives are talking about the public good and completely whitewashing the numbers part of it,” he said in an interview.  “There’s going to come a time again when we’re going to talk about rates.”

At Green Mountain Power Mr. Dostis said his utility looks carefully at its mix of power sources to make sure its rates remain competitive with other New England utilities.

“We have a voice in the legislative process,” said Mr. Dostis, himself a former state representative.  “In the end the ratepayers will absorb any cost.  We are very mindful of that, and we make sure the Legislature is very mindful of that.”

Mr. Dostis sees big changes ahead in his industry “as more and more people put on solar projects that meet 100 percent of their power needs.  Their bill is zero.  Other customers are paying the cost of maintaining the overall grid.  It’s an issue the Legislature will have to deal with.”

At the Legislature, Senator John Rodgers of Glover has taken the position that Vermont’s renewable electric energy goals should simply be scrapped.

“My concern is that the renewable goals are driving the Public Service Board’s decisions when they’re siting these projects.  I don’t think that’s how siting should be driven.

“Ridgeline industrial wind is absolutely the worst of all the possible tools at our disposal,” the senator said.  Instead he’d like to see more support for “small, local stuff” like farm methane and power dams that have fallen out of service.

Canadian hydro power is another option that should be expanded, he said.  “I don’t see any problem with using very reasonably priced power produced north of the border with renewable resources.”

He challenges the idea that Vermont should not only use more renewable electric power, but also generate it.  “Most of the appeal of Vermont is that we have resisted destroying our environment for the sake of commercial enterprise,” he said.

contact Chris Braithwaite at chris@bartonchronicle.com

 

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