Out of 213 registered voters attending, 120 supported while 93 opposed the construction of 26, nearly 400-foot-tall wind turbines proposed for Hardscrabble Mountain in Sheffield and Norris Mountain in Sutton.
The project would supply power to Washington Electric Coop in East Montpelier. Wind developer UPC is also "in talks" with Burlington Electric Department and Vermont Electric Cooperative, according to a promotional flyer at the meeting.
"We’re really happy," Paul Gaynor, president and CEO of UPC Wind Management LLC based in Newton, Mass., said after the meeting. "But we still have a lot of work to do. It (the vote of support) is a great confirmation of where we are in the process."
The victory for the project was somewhat surprising in light of the strong opposition from some town residents. Backers cited property rights issues and the need for alternative sources of energy as reasons for their yes vote.Whoops of celebration from supporters shared the room with gloomy faces of opponents immediately after the hourlong meeting, during which voters also refused to allow UPC officials to give a 15-minute presentation because they were not registered to vote there. Participants by voice vote and a show of hands agreed to avoid debate and discussion and go right to the vote.
While wind project opponents have been vociferously visible in recent months, supporters seemed to come out of the woodwork Thursday, many having never attended previous wind energy meetings, or in some cases, any town meetings.
Holly Simpson, 31, voted for the first time in her life to support the wind project. Simpson said she registered to vote for the first time when she paid her property taxes last month. Nobody tried to persuade her, she said.
"I think people should be allowed to do what they want on their own property," Simpson said.
Others who voted ‘yes’ said new forms of energy need to be developed. UPC says the project would generate 52 megawatts of energy, or 2 to 3 percent of Vermont’s energy load, serving up to 20,000 households.
Opponents said after the meeting they were disappointed, but are not giving up the fight.
With voter opinion now a matter of record, the town will work with UPC to finalize project plans.
Sheffield selectmen last month hired Montpelier lawyer Richard Saudek to negotiate with UPC Wind Management on the details. The town accepted $4,000 from UPC to pay for Saudek’s services, according to Town Clerk Kathy Newland, and Saudek emphasized his only allegiance is to the town. Saudek has experience with utility issues, including working for the town of Rockingham when it attempted to by a hydroelectric dam from USGen.
In the 1980s, Saudek represented Hydro Quebec.
Saudek, former chairman of the Public Service Board and former commissioner of the Department of Public Service, said it is hard to say how much this vote matters. Had the vote been more of a landslide, it could have swayed the public service board one way or the other. The PSB considers public opinion along with the state’s need for energy, environmental studies, noise impact, visual impact and other considerations required by section 248 of the state’s utility development law.
The proposed $104 million Sheffield Wind Farm project would be the second U.S. wind facility built by UPC Wind Management LLC, according to company president and CEO Paul Gaynor.
UPC first broke ground on U.S. soil in September at Ukumehame, a state-owned conservation land area on scenic mountains in Maui, Hawaii. The $65 million, 20 turbine wind project would be the largest in Hawaii, with a promised production of about 9 percent of Maui Electric Company’s total power, according to the Star Bulletin, a Hawaiian newspaper.
"To get to the site we had to build the road," said Gaynor, describing constructing a six-mile road, which is nearly complete. The project should be done by January, he said, adding, "we are the first wind project doing a habitat conservation plan."
The Maui facility would generate 30 megawatts of power.
According to an article published in 2004 by Environment Hawaii, UPC is the fourth (and most successful) company to attempt installing a wind farm on conservation land known to have abundant wind resources. UPC bought interest in the planned 20-megawatt wind farm from Hawaii Renewable Development, after it changed hands from Zond Pacific, Inc. to Enron Wind to GE Wind to HRD in the span of five years. A wind generation facility has been proposed for the current site dating back to the 1980s but a renewed interest in renewable energy has plans on the road to completion.