SHEFFIELD – Wind whipped powdery snow past the windows of the town offices as Alan Robertson extolled the benefits of harnessing that stiff breeze: renewable electricity for Vermont, lease payments to landowners, a river of cash for the town treasury.
“This is Sheffield’s one chance for a claim to fame,” Robertson, 58, a retired engineer and town lister, said of plans for an $80 million wind farm on a Sheffield ridge. “We’re a poor town. We need the money.”
“And we desperately need the jobs,” added Jack Simons, a planning commissioner.
Eight miles north at a gathering in Barton, Therese Bonnette verged on tears as she counted out her fears about the project known as Sheffield Wind: destruction of the peace, quiet and natural beauty of Duck Pond Road that she has enjoyed all her life.
“We see so many animals. They will go away with all this noise. And those red lights up there, blinking at night,” Bonnette, 63, sighed, referring to the impact of construction traffic and warning lights on the wind towers. “It’s just not right.”
Up here in sparsely settled Northeast Kingdom, Sheffield Wind has touched off a bitter debate engulfing residents and town governments in half a dozen communities that will share unequally in the wind farm’s costs and benefits.
What Sheffield selectmen see as a boon to their tiny community, other towns see as a threat to their scenic beauty, tourism, economy and property values.
Sheffield town government supports UPC Vermont Wind’s application to the Public Service Board for permission to build the project. The town of Barton and Sutton have voted to oppose the project and are represented at the hearings.
The PSB must sort out the conflicting claims as it decides whether the economic benefits of the Northeast Kingdom’s first commercial wind development outweigh its potential economic, environmental and other impacts.
The board completed two weeks of technical hearings Friday, but plans to take more testimony in March. A decision could come this year.
By any measure, the board’s verdict will be a landmark decision – one that will reverse of reinforce the negative signal sent to wind energy developers in July when the board rejected a four-turbine project in East Haven.
“I think everyone is waiting to see what happens with Sheffield,” said Matt Rubin, owner of the East Haven project.
Towering turbines, renewable power
The 16 turbines proposed by UPC Vermont Wind – an affiliate of Massachusetts-based UPC Wind Partners – constitute a major undertaking by Vermont standards.
Rising 420 feet from the ridge when their blades are lifted, the 16 turbines would tower over virtually every other manmade structure in the state. Erecting them will require building five miles of new roads and clearing 63 acres of land. They would be visible from 3 or 4 towns away – and from high points as far away as Canada and New Hampshire, opponents say.
Once turning, the turbines will generate enough clean, renewable electricity to power all the homes in Caledonia County, the company says. It plans to sell all the power to Vermont utilities, at a discount from market rates.
The project would bring 20 permanent jobs to the region, according to UPC Wind.
The largest direct financial benefit would flow to the town of Sheffield, where the turbines would be spread along the Granby Mountain- Libby Hill ridge.
While support of the wind turbines is by no means unanimous in town – the anti-wind group Ridge Protectors is based out of vegetable farmer Greg Bryant’s home across the town hall – residents voted 120-93 to support the development in principle.
Sheffield’s three-man Selectboard then negotiated an agreement with UPC Wind Partners for payments of $400,000 to $550,000 a year for 20 years.
Economic boost for one town
“This is extremely beneficial to the town. Invested in an annuity, that money could mean a permanent doubling of our municipal budget,” said Robertson. The $80 million wind farm would triple Sheffield’s $41 million grand list.
“And it will do wonders to Sheffield’s sense of dignity,” added Simons. Vermont, and the nation, need alternatives to fossil-fuel power plants, tehy say, and Sheffield should be proud to contribute.
By many measures, Sheffield is a poor town – no businesses to speak of, a relatively small grand list, median household income ($28,125) well below the state average.
“There’s a lot of people around here who could use more money to live,” said Leslie Newland, 62, a drywall hanger who has lived in town most of his life. “This would stablize our taxes, so they wouldn’t have to go up every time the town has to buy a new truck.”
Rural region faces changed landscape
Sheffield Wind’s turbines would not be visible from the agin wood-frame houses of Sheffield village, strung along a low-lying stretch of Vermont 122 northwest of Lydonville.
They would stick up like giant fence posts in the views from many roads, front yards and hiking trails sprinkled across the high, plateau-like hills of Sheffield, Sutton, Barton, Westmore and Newark.
The fight over wind farms is often cast as a battle of aesthetics versus energy production. That’s an oversimplification, says Bob Michaud, chairman of the Planning Commission in Sutton, Sheffield’s neighbor to the northeast.
“You are talking about changing the character of this whole region,” he said last week as he toured the high plateau of Sutton, stopping to point out the wind farm ridgeline from half a dozen spots.
The turbines would “diminish the rugged and wild landscape by instantly ‘taming’ it with their sheer scale,” one expert witness for Sheffield Wind opponents summed up in testimony filed with the PSB.
Like many residents of the Northeast Kingdom, Michaud is an urban refugee who arrived in the 1960s in search of “a better life, a cleaner life.” Today, he owns a custom lighting business and is a determined opponent of a wind farm he says would impose an industrial development on his community.
“People come here because they want a rural community,” he said. “In Sheffield, they are just looking at a quick buck.”
Neighboring towns fear economic hit
A few miles north, in Barton, Linda Lavalle describes the wind turbine project as “a mess” – a mess she feels will hurt her business.
In the Northeast Kingdom, where jobs are hard to come by and tourism is an economic mainstay, aesthetic concerns quickly edge over into economics.
Lavalle lives on the shores of Crystal Lake, Barton’s tourist destination, where three generations of her family have operated Lake View Cabins.
The wind towers would be strung along a ridge at the southern end of the lake and would “devastate” the beauty of the region, she said.
“This is the asset this area has,” she said, pointing out the window. “The lake, the mountains, the scenery – it’s priceless.”
Expert witnesses for UPC Vermont Wind argue the turbines would not have an undue impact on the scenery of the area. People come to Crystal Lake to swim and boat, landscape architect David Raphael said in testimony filed with the PSB, not to look at the scenery.
Lavalle disagrees. Her summer guests come to get away from urban America, she said. Her cabins don’t have television or telephones, and her guests like it that way. Would they still come if the towers go up? She fears some would not.
Over in Westmore, a community clustered around Lake Willoughby, Selectboard member Nancy Mallary echoes Lavalle.
“Nobody’s opposed to green energy. It’s the location and the industrial size,” she said. “Westmore has no industry, no school, no post office. All we have are our tourist businesses , B&Bs, campgrounds, summer residences. We want the Public Service Board to consider the potential adverse impacts on our town.”
Public opinion in Sutton and Barton is no more unanimous that it is in Sheffield, but in town votes, the two communities have clearly spoken.
Sutton has voted twice to oppose the wind farm, originally because six towers were to be located within the town’s borders. Among other objections, townspeople fear King George School, a school for troubled youths and an important source of jobs and tax revenue, might close if the turbines go up. UPC Wind has eliminated the Sutton turbines, but that hasn’t satisfied opponents.
“When you look at the ridgeline, you can’t tell where Sutton stops and Sheffield begins,” said Michaud.
In January, about 150 Barton residents voted unanimously at a special town meeting to oppose the project.
They were angry after learning the wind company planned to use Barton roads for thousands of trips by construction vehicles, but they also agreed to fight the project on grounds it would “impair the natural beauty of the area” and hurt tourism.
A community divided
A draft of the Northeast Kingdom’s regional plan once included a flat statement supporting development of commercial wind energy. Protests ensued. The section was redrafted.
While wind energy “needs to be considered,” the regional plan now says the PSB should consider the impact of any proposed wind project not on just the host town but on neighboring towns.
The board should consider the town plans of neighboring communities, and the “appearance and operation of facilities should be weighed as an aspect to change the essential character of the area.”
Commercial wind projects are “creating a very divided and emotional situation in our communities,” the regional plan says.
On that point, at least, there is general agreement in the towns around the Granby Mountain ridge. Feelings run high – Ridge Protectors, the opponent group, has raised more than $600,000 for its fight. Accusations of intimidation and distributing false information fly from both sides.
Poet Galway Kinnell has lived part time in Sheffield since the 1960s and is now retired there. He opposes the wind farm, in part because of its effect on residents of other towns.
“There was no concern in this town for our neighboring towns. I find that rather tragic,” he said last week.
Robertson and Simons, the Sheffield town officials, say they believe residents will quickly accept the wind turbines once they are up. In fact, Robertson said, he hopes UPC Vermont Wind will expand the wind farm a decade down the line.
Nevertheless, Simons added, the bitter feelings will linger over what’s been said and done during the debate.
“I’ve said it before. This will divide the town for 25 years,” he said.
By Candace Page
Free Press Staff Writer
Published: Sunday, February 11, 2007
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