LOWELL – The three men who will have the final say on whether Green Mountain Power can build a commercial wind project on Lowell Mountain spent a long day in town on Thursday, September 23.
The three – Jim Volz, John Burke and David Coen – are the full membership of the state Public Service Board (PSB). Sometime in the spring of 2011 they will decide whether Green Mountain Power (GMP) will get the certificate of public good it needs to proceed with the project.
To be precise, the board members left town almost as soon as they arrived, on a bus provided by GMP. While designed to provide the board with views of the proposed site from all points of the compass, the five-hour trip bore an odd resemblance to a fall foliage tour as the big bus made its careful way along some of the prettiest and crankiest back roads the Northeast Kingdom has to offer.
It headed south from Lowell to the shore of Lake Eden, then east from Eden Mills to Craftsbury on East Hill Road, up to Craftsbury Common and then north through Albany to the Don and Shirley Nelson farm where the Bailey Hazen Road becomes a rough trail through a corner of Lowell that you can’t get to from Lowell. Then the bus rambled east to Albany Center, down the Delano Road and north to Irasburg, north and west to Jay, and back to Lowell through Westfield.
Along the way, the most frequently heard question on the bus was “Do you have service?” as the assembled officials tried to stay in touch with their home offices by cell phone. Their difficulty in doing so emphasized a point that the rambling bus ride had already made pretty obvious: They were a long way away from the places where important decisions are made in Vermont.
Among those on the bus, in addition to substantial contingents from GMP and the PSB, were staff members of state Department of Public Service, which will play the role of “public advocate” in the proceedings; David Hallquist, chief executive officer of Vermont Electric Cooperative (VEC), which will have the right to buy a portion of the Lowell wind power; Lowell’s three selectmen; Ben Rose, executive director of the Green Mountain Club, which presides over the Long Trail; and David Raphael, a key GMP consultant on the issue of the project’s scenic impact.
There were a few interested citizens on the bus, and more followed in a convoy of their own vehicles.
What the riders had to look for as they periodically climbed off the bus were three test towers set up by GMP to sample wind conditions. According to Charlie Pughe, who manages the project for GMP, the two that stand close to the north and south ends of the project are 262 feet tall, the height of the towers that will carry the blades which will extend the turbines’ full height to more than 400 feet.
The “met” towers were not visible from all vantage points. Even when they were in view they were easy to miss – slender lines against the sky that, as several people commented, you could only see if you were looking for them.
The visitors saw, but didn’t comment on, a lot of signs along the way that said “Save the Lowell Mountain Range.”
One of the project opponents who helped post the signs, Tyler Mason of Albany, said in an interview Thursday morning that he was convinced that the driver of a VEC truck he saw on the remote Eden Road had pulled up a sign he had just put in front of a hunting camp, and thrown it into the woods. Mr. Mason said he found the sign and put it back.
Asked about that just before the bus tour began, Mr. Hallquist of VEC said that if Mr. Mason didn’t actually see the sign being removed, he would want more evidence that a VEC employee was involved.
“We’re not big supporters of the project,” he said. “We have been very careful to say ‘Look, the aesthetics of this thing are highly important to us.’ That’s why the public process is so important.”
“I don’t see any of our employees getting that emotional” about the issue, Mr. Hallquist said. However, he added, “if it did happen, we’d be taking disciplinary action.”
The mood on the bus was relaxed. Mr. Burke, who carries his considerable authority over the Vermont landscape with a cheerful openness and a quick wit, set the tone before the trip began.
No matter what was said that day, he told the group, “you’re all going to be neighbors tomorrow morning. Try and keep that in mind.”
The opportunity for people to express their views on the project would come that evening, he added, at the public hearing the board had scheduled at the Lowell Graded School.
As he sat at the board’s long table in the school gym Thursday night, Mr. Coen commented that, in his 16 years on the PSB, he had never seen a hearing so well attended. It was obvious, he added, that “this is an issue dear to your hearts.”
That became even more obvious as people lined up for the microphone, trying to squeeze their opinions into the two-minute time limit imposed by the board. They emerged briefly from a crowd that filled every seat in the house, lined the big room’s walls and even spilled over onto the stage behind the board members.
Notably absent from the debate were the major players. Mr. Volz, the chairman, asked anyone who had intervener or “party” status in the formal hearing process not to speak at Thursday’s hearing.
That ruled out not only spokesmen for Green Mountain Power and VEC, but also some of the project’s most determined critics, including leaders of the Lowell Mountain Group and individuals like Mr. and Mrs. Nelson, who have devoted years to keeping wind towers off the ridgeline that looms above their farm.
When he tried to speak, Mr. Rose of the Green Mountain Club was shut down by Mr. Volz, because the club has party status. The same thing happened to David Stackpole, a Stowe attorney who represents a group of campowners.
Of those who did speak, a couple of generalizations are possible. Almost all the speakers who said they live in Lowell, or own property in town, spoke in favor of the project.
Yet the loudest and most sustained applause came for those who opposed it. Mr. Burke was moved to say, early in the hearing, that the board listened to what people said, not to the level of applause.
“This has nothing to do with green energy,” said Jim Goodrich of Albany, whose name was at the top of the speakers’ sign-up list. “It’s nothing but putting neighbor against neighbor, friend against friend, for money.”
But Hillary Elmer, who raises dairy goats in Lowell, said she disagrees with people who fear that wind towers on the horizon will affect the area’s rural feel. “I think I would enjoy looking at windmills,” she said. “I’d like to see a renewable source of power in my backyard.”
Peggy Sapphire of Craftsbury denounced GMP as a “corporate behemoth” that “can overwhelm the least wealthy corner of the state.”
Turning to the Old Testament, Ms. Sapphire said, “I know Craftsbury is David and Green Mountain Power is Goliath, and I know how the story ended.”
Many Lowell residents were content to remind the board of the vote, taken at Town Meeting in March, which supported the wind project by a margin of three to one.
“I support the project because Lowell is supporting it,” said Mark Higley, who represents the town in the state House of Representatives.
Another state representative, attorney Duncan Kilmartin of Newport, said “Green Mountain Power is trying to use tax dollars to try and push people off your docket.” That was an apparent reference to efforts by GMP, in concert with the Vermont Land Trust, to fund the quick purchase of the Nelsons’ farm by a family that would agree not to object to the wind project.
Mr. Kilmartin attacked wind as an inefficient power source. “It will not contribute to baseload power or close any fossil fuel plant down,” he said.
Pam Tetreault, the town treasurer, told the board that 456 of the town’s 532 voters cast ballots on the project in March. “Typically we have 90 to 120 people at Town Meeting,” she said.
One voice from Lowell in opposition was that of Gordon Spencer. “The vote was for the money to offset the taxes,” he said. “This is not a wealthy town. My concern is the disingenuous, condescending way this was presented to us.
“We haven’t been told the truth,” Mr. Spencer said. “I’m not totally against wind power, but this is the wrong site for it.”
But Beth Viera of Lowell said the wind towers would make for cleaner air and a healthier environment. “The wind is there for the taking,” she said. “I do want this in my backyard.”
Ted Vogt, who identified himself as a member of the Green Mountain Club, said he has worked for years as a volunteer, maintaining the Long Trail from Belvidere to Hazen’s Notch.
“This part of the Long Trail includes places of extraordinary beauty,” he said. The Northeast Kingdom views he has enjoyed from this and other trails in the area “will be dramatically changed” if the project is permitted, Mr. Vogt said. “Solar power has a far greater potential than wind,” he added. “I’m against the Lowell project.”
The list of speakers ran to about 60 names, and when the last person had spoken, Mr. Burke offered a quick summing up of the arguments he’d heard for and against the project.
“You can see we really do listen to what you say,” he concluded, to warm applause.
But when he opened the hearing, Mr. Volz told people that, as a legal matter, what they were about to say was not evidence the board could consider.
That will come during the technical hearings, at which the parties will present testimony from experts, whose professional opinions will be subject to cross-examination by attorneys.
“However,” the chairman concluded, “your comments can be very important to us.”
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