Wind farm debate heats up in Sheffield

by Paul Lefebvre

copyright the Chronicle July 27, 2005

SHEFFIELD — A push to raise consciousness and get the public involved in a controversial wind farm proposal is expected to draw state officials, legislators, and selectmen from neighboring towns when the two sides meet Wednesday, July 27, in an open forum here in the town hall.

“Better bring your armor,” advised Town Clerk Kathy Newland, who expects the meeting to be crowded and noisy.  “There’s not going to be room for everybody.”
Impetus for the meeting appears to be coming from those who are apprehensive about the project and want to know more about the state process developers must go through to receive a permit from the agency that regulates electrical generating plants, the Public Service Board (PBS).
Organizers say that representatives from both the Agency of Natural Resources and the Department of Public Service are expected to attend, along with Representative John Morley who counts Sheffield as one of the towns he represents in the Legislature.
Mr. Morley said Tuesday night he sees the wind farm as a local issue, although he wondered whether neighboring towns should each have a seat at the table when the project goes before PSB.
“What we are trying to do is raise the public consciousness not only about the project itself, but the process the state has for such projects,” said Paul Brouha.
A summer resident who has roots in Sheffield, Mr. Brouha is one of the organizer of Wednesday’s meeting as well as an opponent of the latest project to build a wind farm on ridge lines of the Northeast Kingdom.
UPC Vermont Wind wants to site between 24 and 33 wind towers on Hardscrabble Mountain and surrounding ridge lines.  According to the company’s web site that is enough turbines to power roughly 50,000 homes, when all are working to full capacity.
To that end, UPC has been joined in its venture by the Washington Electric Co-op of East Montpelier.  And while the partners will get an opportunity to tell their side of the story at the town hall gathering, UPC’s development manager is not happy with the timing of Wednesday’s meeting.
Tim Caffyn said in an interview Tuesday that he feels he is being railroaded by the meeting’s organizers.  He said they had ignored his repeated desire to reschedule the meeting.
“I’ve had no time to motivate my troops,” he said, adding he has been busy doing the project’s engineering, trying to lock in power purchases, and making a cost analysis.
Mr. Caffyn noted that the project would not be ready to go before PSB until three or four months at the earliest.
“Small, vocal opponents are trying to make it difficult and confusing for us, and they’re doing a pretty good job of it,” he said.
So far this year, three wind farm projects have been the subject of public hearings.  Among them the Hardscrabble project is unique in that it proposes to erect giant, state-of-the-art towers, 330 feet tall, close to a residential area.
“This project is really close to people’s homes,” advised Katie Anderson, an activist with the Kingdom Commons Coalition who oppose siting wind farms on Vermont ridge lines.
The proximity of the turbines has caused some Sheffield residents to express concern over the noise.  That concern mushroomed with the distribution last month of a DVD highlighting the adverse effects that residents of a Pennsylvania town, Myersdale, experienced living with a wind farm.
“That’s what fueled the fire,” said Town Clerk Newland.
According to the latest U.S. Census, Sheffield has a population of 727 people living on 33 square miles.  That’s about 22 people per square mile. As the distributors of the DVD, Mr. Brouha and his wife, Carol, say they want to protect the integrity of the area and the economy of the region.  An economy, noted Mr. Brouha, that is tied to tourism and second homes.
They hope Wednesday’s meeting will yield new information about the scope of the project, and act more or less like a governor in slowing the project down.
For Mr. Brouha, early involvement by the public is necessary to counter the momentum he fears developers will gain if their application for test towers goes before the PSB uncontested.
“We want a description right from the beginning,” he said, referring to the project’s ultimate scale.
According to the 2000 census, about 68 percent of Sheffield’s residents were born in Vermont.  Per capita income is listed at $13,277.
The distinction between native and non-native, or newcomer, became something of an issue a few years ago when developers tried to reopen an old granite quarry.  The quarry eventually failed because of the poor quality of the granite.  But the fight to establish it opened fissures along class lines and between natives and seasonal dwellers.
While it may be too early to tell if the split over a wind farm on Hardscrabble Mountain will fall along the same demographics, most everyone is aware of the possibility.
According to Sheffield’s town clerk, most of the residents who oppose the project are the ones “who have moved in the  last 20 years or so.”
They are the same people in her eyes whose car bumpers display Bernie Sanders’ stickers.  “They’ll have to tear them off,” she said, making an oblique reference to a press release in June that noted the Washington Electric Co-op was able to join the wind farm project because of a $941,400 energy grant that was awarded through the assistance of Congressman Bernie Sanders.
Essentially, Ms. Newland bases her support from a taxpayer’s point of view.  The project means, she said, “$15,000 in taxes that we would never have or dream of having in this town.”
At the same time, however, opponents are working to  broaden their base.  They are creating their own group called Ridge Protectors, whose membership, according to Carol Brouha, is composed of an “amazing mix of people,” including hunters, natives, and second homeowners.
The Brouhas plan to return to Sheffield full time when Paul, who grew up here, retires from the U.S. Forest Service.
“This is our heart; this is our home,” advised his wife during a phone conversation Tuesday.  “This is where his parents are commemorated; where their ashes are.”
And while no one would question the passion of the couple’s commitment to the area, some like Town Clerk Newland have adopted a more prosaic stance.
When it comes to a wind farm for Sheffield, she said about 4 percent of the people see it as “the end of the world”; another 20 percent say “Go for it”; and the rest say, “Who cares?”
Following presentations by the two sides, the public will have a chance to ask questions and offer opinions.  A moderator has been appointed to conduct the meeting, which is scheduled to begin at 7 o’clock.
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