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Opponents petition for public vote on wind farm

SHEFFIELD ““ A wind opponent group here last week petitioned the town to hold a meeting asking voters to choose Australian ballot instead of a traditional town meeting in the most recent move to fight a proposed 26-unit industrial Sheffield Wind Farm.

A petition signed by about 20 Sheffield residents asking for a public vote to decide to elect public officials by Australian ballot arrived by certified mail last Friday, according to Selectman Chairman Max Aldrich.

“If it is an attempt to get more voters involved in the process, it is probably a good thing,” Aldrich said. “I don’t like the idea of losing the local town meeting.” By law, the board must set a special meeting to vote on the issue within 15 days of receiving the petition.

If approved, the new election method would implement an absentee voting mechanism allowing everybody, including those who cannot get to town meeting, to vote on important issues, said Greg Bryant, a Sheffield resident and wind opponent. Bryant said this is part of an ongoing effort to unravel an agreement struck between the three-member Sheffield Selectboard and UPC Wind Management, the Newton, Mass.-based development company proposing a large scale wind generation plant in the area. They filed for a utility permit from the Public Service Board in February.

Sheffield selectmen in June entered a legal agreement with UPC to spell out the benefits the town would receive in exchange for fully supporting the project after townspeople voted to support the project 120 to 93. Under the agreement, if built, the town would get roughly $400,000 to $550,000 a year in payments in lieu of taxes and other funds.

Opponents have been actively working to dismantle the roughly 30-page agreement that also deals with issues like widening roads, public communications and repairing damage caused by building the utility.

“The agreement they (Selectmen) signed “¦ there are parts we can argue,” Bryant said in early September. “We have 35 pages of questions about it. It is just a horrendous agreement.”

Bryant said wind opponents questioned the legality of the agreement since it was made behind closed doors between the selectmen and UPC, but Secretary of State Deborah Markowitz issued a decision saying the town did nothing illegal.

However, Bryant said Markowitz told him her office could not give an opinion about whether making a decision of that magnitude without public input was ethically correct.

Selectmen had said in a public meeting prior to signing the agreement they would hold a public hearing before signing any documents, but reversed that position.

Instead, they decided, on advice of legal counsel, to enter an agreement without public input, according to Selectman Aldrich in June.

Aldrich said at the time selectmen decided townspeople would be better off with an agreement in place than if the project gets PSB approval and they have no agreement.

Opponents say otherwise.

“A lot of us are still expecting a vote,” Bryant said. “Even though it (the agreement) is legal, she (Secretary of State Deb Markowitz) hasn’t decided whether the town should ethically let people vote.”

Twenty of the nearly 400-foot turbines would be placed on Sheffield ridgelines and six in neighboring Sutton. Sutton voted to oppose the wind farm during Town Meeting Day this year.

The project would provide a maximum capacity of 52 megawatts of power to be sold to Washington Electric Coop and other Vermont utilities.

Developers, opponents and other interested parties are undergoing the discovery process before the Public Service Board, a three-member utility oversight committee that will issue a decision after receiving testimony from interested parties and interveners.

By Carla Occaso Times Argus Staff