“We’re not Maine or Massachusetts, and we’re certainly not California,” noted Michael Chernick, who is with the Legislative Council in Montpelier.
But, he added, they can be politically persuasive. And when it comes to such a controversial subject as industrial wind farms on Northeast Kingdom ridge lines, a political edge is what both sides hope to achieve in the straw vote scheduled for Sheffield next month.
In fact the prize of public support is so appealing that UPC wind developer Michael Caffyn is in favor of seeing another referendum held among residents of the second town where his company desires to erect state-of-the-art, 400-foot wind turbines along parallel ridge lines ranging between 1,970 and 2,250 feet in elevation.
The company plans to file a petition with the Public Service Board (PSB) by the end of the year, asking for a certificate of public good to install between 20 and 35 wind turbines. As plans stand now, 20 turbines are planned to go up within the town lines of Sheffield; while Sutton would play host to an additional six.
Sutton is a small town that, much like Sheffield, is sparsely populated in the hills of Caledonia County. Unlike Sheffield, however, Sutton has already gone on record by opposing wind farms in its recently adopted town plan. The plan evolved over a two-year period of public hearings, which included discussions on placing a wind farm on nearby ridge lines.
“Everyone who came before the board to speak was against it,” said Bob Michaud, who serves as the town’s planning board chairman.
And because of the plan’s adoption, Mr. Michaud said, there may be no need for Sutton to hold a referendum. Sheffield, though, has no comparable record.
“There’s nothing out there, so they’re going to have a straw vote,” he said, noting that Sheffield has neither zoning nor a town plan.
Such sentiments appeared to cause Mr. Caffyn to fidget. On the one hand he believes that when it comes to wind farms, “the Public Service Board has final approval, whether the town approves it or not.” But on the other hand, he added in an interview Tuesday, it is “very important for us to have a town’s approval.”
UPC was scheduled to go before the Sutton selectmen Tuesday night, November 22, and make a presentation. The developers are not looking for a vote, but rather an opportunity to tell their side of the story. The town plan, argued Mr. Caffyn, should not get in the way of taking the issue of a wind farm to the people.
“They should have a referendum vote on that,” he said.
Historically, referendums in Vermont have never gotten very far. Yet, despite their non-binding legal status, there are some exceptions.
The latest one occurred in the seventies when the Snelling Administration balked at the idea of a lottery. Favored by the Legislature, the issue appeared headed for a classic showdown until a compromise was struck.
Under the terms of the deal, according to Mr. Chernick, the issue was put to the voters in a statewide referendum. If they approved, the Governor would pull his objection.
The measure won public approval, and the lottery went on to become part and parcel of Vermont life. The Governor kept his word, noted Mr. Chernick, and allowed the bill to pass into law without his signature.
The wind farm referendum for Sheffield is scheduled for December 1. And while the initiative to put the question before the voters came from opponents of the project, UPC is playing hard to win.
“It’s going to be close,” advised Mr. Caffyn.
For the last two weeks or so, daily ads have appeared in the Caledonian Record touting the benefits, economic and otherwise, a wind farm will bring to the town. At the other end of a hot line number, a woman’s voice invites callers to register their “questions and concerns” with the promise someone will get back to them with answers and explanations.
The ads appear under the name Friends of Sheffield Wind Farm. On Tuesday Mr. Caffyn would only say that the advertising campaign is a grass-roots effort. He was either unwilling or unable to say how much the company was spending on the campaign. Rather, he said the purpose of the campaign was to counter some of the disinformation spread by opponents, and to help him get the word out about wind farms.
“It’s hard to do it all by myself,” he said.
Just how important local support is to the project is hard to gauge. When UPC publicly announced its intention to petition the PSB, the company sent letters of its intent to 20 towns within a ten-mile radius of the project. And while it is highly unlikely that all these towns will take a straw vote on the project, some might want to play an active role in the petition process and ask for party status in the upcoming PSB hearings.
Local participation in the first wind farm case to go before the PSB last winter was all but invisible. East Haven Windfarm, a Montpelier-based company, used a survey it conducted to show it had support of East Haven residents to erect four turbines on East Mountain. Town selectmen also went on record in favor of the project.
As time went on, opponents succeeded in raising questions about the project, and managed to change some opinions, according to Windfarm’s vice president, David Rapaport.
But their effect on the project remains an uncertainty.
Mr. Rapaport said in an interview Tuesday that local support did not provide the company with any strong momentum as it went into the hearing. Rather, he said, momentum came as the case proceeded before the board’s hearing officers. He went on to speculate that other factors, like rolling blackouts and reliability of power sources, may shape public opinion in the months ahead.
East Haven Windfarm developers are hoping the board will reach a decision on the East Mountain project before the year is out. Still pending for the company is a decision over whether it will be able to put a test tower on East Haven Mountain over the opposition of the Burke business community.
The company did receive permission to place test towers on unnamed ridge lines in Brighton and Ferdinand, and Mr. Rapaport said those towers will go up next year as soon as the snow has gone.