In the UTGs: Has industrial wind worn out its welcome?

UTG webby Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle 11-13-2013

ISLAND POND — Seneca Mountain wind developers stuck their head in the lion’s den here Monday night, and the lion roared back.

Eolian Renewable Energy is proposing a 20-turbine project for Seneca Mountain that would be sited exclusively in the town of Ferdinand, a small, sprawling community and a member of the Unified Towns and Gores (UTG).

As unveiled before the UTG Board of Governors, the proposal has been radically altered from one that initially would have extended across the ridgelines of three towns, and one that was flatly rejected by citizens of Brighton and Newark — the other two potential host towns.

But although the project’s scope has shrunk, if Monday night’s crowd was any bellwether, the opposition has stiffened, drawing reinforcements from all of the three counties in the Northeast Kingdom.

“You are our neighbors,” said Vicky Farrand-Lewis of Derby, trying to impress upon the UTG board that the impact of a wind farm extends far beyond the host town and the one that stands to reap most of the financial benefits.

“You’re part of us and we’re a part of you.”

Monday night’s meeting was a scheduled monthly meeting for the board, but the agenda forced UTG officials to hold it in the more spacious town hall in Island Pond.  Opponents demanded a larger venue, and their request was joined by the secretary of state’s office, said UTG Board Chairman Barbara Nolan during an interview Tuesday.  Still puzzling her a day later was who was going to pick up the tab for the change in venue.

If built, the project for the UTG would be the third industrial wind project to be sited in the Northeast Kingdom.  And as the crowd of 100 or so made demonstratively clear Monday, industrial wind in this corner of the state has all but worn out its welcome.

Kim Fried of Newark, a local leader in the anti-wind movement, was the first to speak of the area’s waning support.  He reminded the board that all four senators from the region oppose the project, and that the Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA), the regional planning agency, was on record as opposing further wind development on the area’s ridgelines.

Monday’s meeting ended without any decision. Still facing the board is the question of how to proceed with what amounts to a referendum over UTG hosting a controversial wind project.

According to Ms. Nolan, the referendum has to contain the developers’ proposal for the results to be acceptable to Eolian, the Portsmouth, New Hampshire, company that is handling the project.

The UTG board will meet again Thursday with developers to discuss amending the proposal before sending it out.  Ms. Nolan would not discuss what changes the board would like to see before it meets with developers later this week.

There are roughly 39 residents in the UTG, but the project’s fate clearly lies with the 430 or so property owners.  It is their support that Eolian’s executive director, Jack Kenworthy, is courting in a sales pitch that would give UTG landowners roughly $400,000 a year if the project is built.

Developers are offering Ferdinand a financial incentive that would extend beyond taxes.  For hosting a 60 megawatt project, the town would receive an annual payment of $600,000, which would be allocated three different ways.

Roughly 10 percent, or $60,000, would go toward municipal taxes, leaving a balance of $540,000.  Of that amount, 20 percent, or $108,000, would be deposited in what developers are calling a public fund, which the UTG would be free to spend as it sees fits.

As for the remaining $432,000, that would go into a UTG landowner fund “for the benefit of UTG landowners,” according to the proposal.

Mr. Kenworthy expects it will take three years to bring the project on line.  And if the project has to be reduced in size during the permitting process, he said Eolian would guarantee the town a bottom line annual payment of $400,000.

To some in the crowd the cash incentive sounded too much like a bribe.

Melinda Gervais-Lamoureux, who chairs the Brighton Selectmen, said the proposal should not contain the dollar figures the developers are offering.  While others like Cynthia Barber of Newark warned UTG governors they were doing the project’s bidding.

Ms. Barber contended that by being involved in a survey that had been designed by developers, the town was implying it supported the proposal.

Throughout the meeting the board had to struggle to maintain a neutral appearance.  Chairman Nolan said repeatedly that the board was only trying to serve its constituents.

“We need to hear from them,” she said at one point.

But the proposed survey the board wants to use also drew criticism.  As presented, landowners who own multiple pieces of property would be given multiple votes.  If someone, for example, owns half a dozen pieces of property, he or she would get six votes on whether the UTG should host a wind farm.

Senator John Rodgers of Glover, who has come out publicly opposed to the project, said that the survey’s procedure would violate the constitutional principle of one person, one vote.  He suggested residents come together and hold a vote to settle the issue.

As characterized by Mr. Kenworthy, the project would cover nearly 150 acres, and would be visible in 5 to 10 percent of the surrounding view shed.  He said the project would use a radar activated lighting system that would eliminate “night time light intrusion.”  Turbines would be sited at least half a mile from the nearest residence.

Few in the crowd were reassured.

Nancy Fried of Newark said the residents of Brighton and Newark would feel the impact of the project more keenly than those who live in Ferdinand.

Kevin McGrath, a resident of Lowell who lives close to the wind project on Lowell Mountain, said turbine noise ruined his home, despite reassurances to the contrary from developers.

“I know this game.  I’ve lived it,” he said, inviting anyone in the crowd to speak with him once the meeting ended.

The fear that those voting on the proposal would not be getting the full story prompted Noreen Hession of Newark to suggest the survey include both pros and cons for industrial wind.

If opponents were given 14 pages to explain the stand they had taken against industrial wind, then “we’d have a fighting chance that the voters were well informed,” she said.

Ms. Nolan said Tuesday that since Eolian was footing the survey’s bill, she doubted if the developers would be willing to pay the extra postage.

She went on to call the survey a first step, adding there would be other steps for the board to take if the project wins support from UTG residents and property owners.  For example, she noted that while the town plan approves the siting of small wind projects, it has made no decision yet on large industrial wind farms.

The board is expected to put the final touches on the survey Thursday and mail it out as soon as possible.

“This vote is going to tell the board which direction it should go,” Ms. Nolan said.

contact Paul Lefebvre at paul@bartonchronicle.com 

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