When residents here show up next week at a special town meeting to decide if the town should take a position on the Sheffield wind farm proposal, the question of home rule will inevitably arise.
Home rule or local control has suddenly come center stage of the wind debate, thanks in part to recent testimony on the Sheffield wind project from the Department of Public Service (DPS).
Presented last month to the Public Service Board, that testimony specifically supports the siting of the project’s wind towers –everything else being equal – in the towns that want them.
In written testimony to the board, Rob Ide, the director for energy efficiency for DPS, argues that the project should go forward in Sheffield, where the townspeople have voted in favor of it. In keeping with the popular wishes of Sutton residents, however, he calls for the two towers planned for Norris Mountain to be scrapped.
“By eliminating all turbines from within the town of Sutton, the decision making process of the town is respected. By allowing all other remaining turbines within the town of Sheffield, that town’s decision-making process has also been respected,” writes Mr. Ide in testimony filed with the board on December 11.
What remains unclear in the department’s position is how much weight neighboring towns should have on the decision. Or whether the board should give the project a green light and award the developers, UPC, a certificate of public good even if the majority of surrounding towns object.
There will be four articles on the agenda at the special meeting in Barton next Tuesday night, January 16. First, residents will be asked to decide if the town should participate in the Public Service Board’s hearings on the Sheffield project. It’s really a moot question as the town, along with five other neighboring communities – Burke, Kirby, Lyndon, Newark, and Westmore – already have received party status to the hearing. It’s a status that, once conferred, means a party can offer testimony to the board.
The more pressing issue is what side of the project Barton will come down on, and how it will make its influence known. Chances are the meeting will end early if voters support the second article and throw the town’s weight behind the project.
If, however, the vote goes the other way and the opposition prevails, then the town will have to get down to the business of deciding how to make its opposition known before the PSB, whose hearings on the project are scheduled to begin at the end of the month.
Those opposed to the Sheffield project want voters to instruct selectmen to fight UPC on both technical and aesthetic grounds. Technically, UPC wants to send trucks through the town and up the Duck Pond Road during the construction phase of the project. Opponents want the town to argue that such a route “would cause an unreasonable burden” on municipal services and result in unreasonable congestion on town roadways.
Secondly, opponents contend the project will have an adverse impact on the area’s natural beauty around Crystal Lake, and will undermine tourism and property values.
Much of the momentum for the meeting is coming from opponents to the project, who have been pushing town selectmen to get involved. Liz Butterfield, one of the movers behind the meeting, said in an interview last week that selectmen wanted a legal vote to guide their actions on the issue. She also noted that the meeting could give the town even more heft to an official party status that says Barton’s testimony before the board would be limited to the impact of truck traffic.
“We’re encouraging citizens to contact PSB on this,” she said as she ticked off the effects 330-foot wind towers would have on her enjoyment of Crystal Lake.
Yet, whatever its intentions, Barton’s special meeting may have its own limitations as far as providing selectmen with a course of action.
If the project goes forward, UPC will make upgrades to the Duck Pond Road – upgrades that won’t cost the town money. And that’s significant in the eyes of Selectman Robert Croteau, who sees the road as the focal point of next week’s meeting.
“The impact on the town road is a fair question, and that’s what this relates to,” he said.
Mr. Croteau agreed in a telephone interview Tuesday that next week’s meeting should be more than just a plebiscite on where the town stands on wind. However, he questioned how far the town could go with an issue that is much larger than the fence mending problems selectmen traditionally tackle.
“This is not even a project within our town,” he said, noting that none of the construction is going to occur within town limits.
When UPC first announced plans to develop a wind farm along the ridge lines between Sheffield and Sutton, it notified every town within a ten-mile radius. As wind farms on Vermont ridge lines became an increasingly controversial issue, the idea that towns in the Northeast Kingdom were the ideal hosts, given their remote surroundings, their lack of population, and their corresponding poverty, began to be aired more frequently in public debate. And as the siting of wind farms became a more and more complex issue, regional planners began to take a longer look at how they would fit in what is arguably Vermont’s remotest corner.
In its five-year regional plan that was passed last year in August after much hand wringing over wind’s place in the Kingdom, the Northeastern Vermont Development Association (NVDA) appeared to fan the flames of regional control. In its review of wind farm projects, NVDA went on to ask the Public Service Board to consider the impact on surrounding towns before issuing a certificate of public good. Specifically, its regional plan asked the board to consider:
“The consistency of the proposal with not only the region’s plan and the host town’s plan and zoning bylaws, but also the plans and bylaws of other towns which may be impacted by the proposed project.”
Moreover, NVDA planners asked the board to also make “a weighing of the potential benefits as well as negative impacts on not only the host town but other impacted towns, including a possible outline of tax payment benefits to impacted towns.”
Sheffield, which is listed as the third poorest town in Vermont by the 2000 U.S. census, voted in December 2005 by a 128-93 margin to host UPC’s wind project. Its neighbor Sutton, however, refused to go along with UPC plans to erect six of the 26 towers within its municipal boundary. In face of opposition from a variety of sources, UPC last fall pared its project back from 26 to 16 towers, with only two earmarked for Sutton.
The reduction struck a responsive cord with the Department of Public Service, which had come out against the original project because of concerns raised by the private King George School, and because of the adverse effects the project poised for the region’s orderly development. This time around, however, the department said that the threat to the region’s orderly development could be removed if UPC limited its towers to the town lines of Sheffield.
Again, writing for the department, Mr. Ide noted that Sutton’s town plan prohibited development in the area where the remaining two towers were to go. The elimination of all the towers for Sutton, he added, would also bring the project into closer compliance with NVDA’s regional plan.
“I believe that the inconsistencies between the project and the language of the Regional Plan discussed in my prefiled direct testimony continues to exist, though to a somewhat lesser degree as a result of the reduction in the numbers of the turbines from 26 to 16,” wrote Mr. Ide.
“I also believe that removal of the two remaining turbines from within the town of Sutton further reduces those inconsistencies to a degree that, in and of themselves, they do not compel the conclusion that the project would unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region.”
Wind opponents at Barton’s meeting next week will likely argue that UPC’s wind project will interfere with the town’s orderly development by making the state park at Crystal Lake a less attractive place to visit. And Ms. Butterfield firmly believes that the project’s impact on Barton “should have equal weight” with the host town.
If the project goes forward, she said Barton residents will “lose forever the beauty of Crystal Lake.”
“It’s not just Sheffield and Sutton,” she said, “it’s the whole area.”
by Paul Lefebvre
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding