The wind tower above Huntington Center could be an eyesore or a beacon of hope in the eyes of its beholders.
If they give it a second glance.
Seen from town, the 120-foot tower, without its turbine and blades, measures roughly the size of a small paper clip held at arm’s length.
Detractors say that’s enough to scuttle the skyline’s charms. Proponents beg to differ.
The Vermont Public Service Board, a neutral arbiter of aesthetics, has ruled twice against the structure, which was erected by the owners of Teal Farm in January 2006, with the blessings of the town’s zoning administrator.
Subsequent challenges from the farm’s adjoining neighbor, part-time Vermont resident E. Miles Prentice III, halted the project.
The service board agreed with Prentice: It found the wind tower to have “an unduly adverse effect” on the surrounding viewscape.
Living Future Foundation, which operates Teal Farm and its array of sustainable energy-and-agriculture projects, appealed the decision.
They might have a case.
“Unduly” is the key word, says East Montpelier landscape architect Jean Vissering – since almost every human construction can be said to adversely affect a rural vista.
Several years ago, at the Public Service Board’s request, Vissering published a pamphlet, “Siting a Wind Turbine on Your Property.”
The pamphlet, available online at the board’s Web site, describes and rates a tower’s insults to aesthetic landscapes.
It asks questions: Does a windmill hover in front of a predominate viewscape or does it nestle at the periphery? To the walker, biker or motorist, how long does it remain in view?
Aware that Vissering was linked to the Public Service Board, Teal Farm nonetheless hired her for some answers.
Last summer, Vissering filed testimony in favor of the Teal Farm site.
“I’ve argued both for and against wind projects,” she said last week. “I’m a firm believer that there are good sites and there are bad sites. I’m not a hired gun. I’m not going to take on a client unless, in my professional opinion, this is a good site.”
In her testimony, Vissering noted that wind turbines – even small ones – are relative newcomers to Vermont’s landscape, and sometimes attract more than their fair share of attention.
Prentice, who practices law in New York City, did not respond for a request for an interview last week. But David Rath, the Hinesburg-based lawyer who represents him, described his property as pristine, with unblemished, 360-degree views.
“The only man-made objects in his landscape are one or two wooden power poles and some far-off remnants of fencing,” he said.
Reggie Brace of Huntington, who for years has worked the hay fields beneath the tower, said the new structure rubbed him the wrong way, too.
“If you’re going to put one up, I say be discrete about it so it’s out of sight, out of mind,” he said. “We’ve got to keep Vermont looking like Vermont so it doesn’t become New Jersey.”
Warts and beauty-spots
In the mid-1980s, the Vermont Environmental Board took steps to dissipate that suburban nightmare.
Faced with rampant, ridgeline developments at Quechee Lakes, in Hartford, the board invited three landscape architects – Vissering among them – to help it more objectively define aesthetic concerns.
The Quechee Analysis, as it came to be known, begins with an inventory of a project’s natural and cultural setting. It defines a project as having an “undue adverse aesthetic impact” if it 1) violates a written, community standard; 2) offends the sensibilities of the average person – if it’s offensive or shocking; or 3) its designers make no effort to bring the project into closer harmony with its surroundings. Those guidelines are still in place.
But they’re not enough, said Rep. Robert Dostis, D-Waterbury, who chairs the Vermont House Energy and Natural Resources Committee.
Dostis likened the aesthetic judgements of the Public Service Board to “trying to distinguish between warts and beauty spots.”
A firmer set of guidelines is in the works. This year’s energy and conservation bill, S.209, directs the board to formalize a set of rules for siting wind turbines lower than 150 feet. On March 19, Governor Jim Douglas signed the bill into law.
Dostis, whose committee helped shape that portion of the bill, said a growing sense of urgency over Vermont’s energy future played a part in its passage.
“It’s important that we have in place more certainty, more predictability to the process of permitting windmills,” he said. “Right now, Vermont is shielded from high electric rates. But in 2012 we might be without Vermont Yankee (nuclear plant). In 2015 our contracts are back on the table with HydroQuebec.
“We have some time to make changes, but not much,” he continued. “We’ve got to change that paradigm. We’ve got to walk the walk.”
Amy Seidl, the associate director of Living Future Foundation, worked with Dostis on this year’s legislation.
“We need better direction on how to site wind projects, large and small,” she said. “More and more people are working hard toward secure, renewable energy, and some of their work will be visible to neighbors. There’s going to be some trade-off that we have to be realistic about. We can’t put our heads in the sand.”
Seidl said the foundation has already spent $80,000 in legal fees in Teal Farm’s test case.
It’s the kind of money that Dhyan Nirmegh, who lives more than a mile away from the tower, doesn’t have. But he’s signed on with Prentice in a quest to move the project to a less visible – and arguably less profitable – site.
“You can’t put a price tag on aesthetics,” Nirmegh said. “You can see the tower from anywhere in Huntington Center. I feel it has changed the character of the town. It rattles and awakens something in me.
“Maybe I’m fighting this purely on emotion,” he added. “I do know the courts care nothing for emotion, only for facts. But you have to have emotion and feelings in order to forge ahead. It sustains you to go beyond the world of facts for a case.”
Yet the world of facts is precisely the realm where Vermonters have asked the Public Service Board to go.
Gregg Faber, the service board hearing officer for the Teal Farm project, said the case was “complicated,” but he couldn’t elaborate on how he determined the site’s aesthetic impact while it is still under review.
The farm’s certificate of public good has been under review for 16 months.
Is the turbine-less tower getting any more attractive?
Economics and changing perceptions might catalyze some conversions, Seidl said.
Wind on the web
Public Service Board: http://publicservice.vermont.gov/energyefficiency/ee_files/wind/psb_wind_siting_handbook.pdf
Teal Farm: www.tealfarm.com/wind_case.html
By Joel Banner Baird
31 March 2008
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