WINDHAM — Commercial wind power is “expressly forbidden” in Windham, and the state should block a developer’s plans to erect test towers in the area, town officials wrote this week in a letter to the Vermont Public Service Board.
The letter comes as Windham officials prepare to fight Iberdrola Renewables’ application to build two meteorological towers in the town and another in Grafton. The towers, depending on the data they produce, could be a precursor to Windham County’s first commercial wind-power development.
Windham’s town plan and zoning regulations — both recently developed — do not allow commercial turbines. And officials contend that means no test towers, either.
“It does not reflect our town’s position on development in this area of the town and is inconsistent with the views of our planning commission and Selectboard as well as the residents and property owners of Windham,” the letter says.
Grafton officials have not yet taken a position on the proposal by Iberdrola, an international company doing business for this project as Atlantic Wind LLC. The test towers, if approved by the state Public Service Board, would be situated on land owned by New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Limited.
But Windham wants to nip the plan in the bud.
“It’s the beginning of a long process that we don’t even want to start,” said Mary Boyer, Windham Selectboard chairwoman.
So the Selectboard and the town’s Planning Commission met jointly on Monday night and unanimously decided to send the letter, Boyer said.
The document was developed with assistance from an attorney who specializes in the state’s permitting process for such projects. Officials note that the test towers would be located on the Stiles Brook Tract, which is in a Forest Resource District.
Town policy requires that “land uses and development in these Forest Resource Districts be limited to forestry, agriculture, mineral-resource extraction, recreation and low-density residential uses.”
Any other commercial uses are prohibited.
“We believe the Public Service Board should give due consideration not only to our recommendations but also to our reasons,” Windham’s letter says. “In this case, our town plan is clear and unambiguous, and our recommendations are based on clear and direct language.”
The town’s zoning law also makes no provision for large-scale wind power.
“Commercial wind projects are not identified as either permitted or conditional uses in the Windham zoning bylaw,” the letter says.
Officials are requesting that the town be allowed to “intervene and participate as a party of record” in the state’s permitting process because “both the Selectboard and Planning Commission have substantial interests which will be adversely affected by the outcome of this proceeding.”
Jenny Briot, a senior business developer with Iberdrola, said the company will respond formally within permitting proceedings. But she also said Iberdrola is aware of Windham’s regulations, which will be considered by the Public Service Board.
“We do respect the town,” Briot said. “We respect the town plan.”
She said Iberdrola is “committed to an open and honest conversation with the town about clean, renewable energy.” Briot added that town officials and residents have been invited to tour the company’s 12-turbine Lempster Wind Power Project in New Hampshire.
But Windham officials claim Iberdrola simply is seeking to “circumvent” the town’s plan and zoning bylaws, which were developed with extensive input from residents after a previous wind-power proposal.
“Atlantic Wind came to Windham with prior knowledge of our town plan and our opposition to commercial wind and with the intention to argue to the Public Service Board that you should ignore our recommendations and disregard our town plan and bylaw,” the town’s letter says.
Iberdrola administrators have taken pains to point out that they currently are seeking permission only to erect meteorological test towers — not full-scale turbines.
Windham’s plan does not prohibit meteorological towers, so the developer has claimed that such structures should be permissible. But town officials say that’s a “disingenuous” argument since test towers are a precursor to turbines, which are prohibited.
“The Windham Planning Commission and Selectboard cannot support the concept of collecting wind data, much less the actual construction of meteorological towers, to justify a purpose that is not a permitted or conditional use in the town and is expressly prohibited by the town plan and contrary to the wishes of our residents,” the letter says. “We believe it would be wrong for the PSB to do so as well.”
Officials also say Atlantic Wind, in its application to the state, “misunderstands” Windham’s plan and mistakenly focuses on aesthetic criteria in contending that the meteorological towers are suitable for the area.
That’s beside the point, town officials argue, because the towers are prohibited regardless.
“We do not wish to be engaged in an unnecessary aesthetic argument with Atlantic Wind,” the letter says.
Nonetheless, the town’s letter also points out that, “contrary to what Atlantic Wind asserts in their application, the Stiles Brook Tract is specifically noted as a scenic resource.”
Windham officials close their seven-page letter with two other points: First, their town plan notes that ridgelines “serve an important ecological function as headwater areas.”
“Due to the potential, cumulative impacts development would have on those sensitive areas, all commercial use in the Forest Resource District is prohibited unless already permitted in the zoning bylaw,” officials wrote. “Temporary meteorological towers are not permitted by the bylaw.”
Also, the letter argues that the tower proposal “will cause demonstrable ‘undue adverse effects to orderly development’ by diverting disproportionate resources to resisting the ultimate project.”
In other words, the tower fight will take a big financial toll on a small town.
“It is totally disruptive to our budget,” Boyer said. “It has already cost us.”