October 2, 2010

Vermont Land Trust deal in Lowell sours over wind project

Chris Braithwaite, Barton Chronicle, www.bartonchronicle.com via vtdigger.org 2 October 2010

LOWELL – Working behind the scenes, Green Mountain Power (GMP) attempted to engineer – and help finance – the purchase of the 586-acre farm of two of the harshest and most persistent critics of its proposed commercial wind project on Lowell Mountain.

GMP’s involvement was revealed to Don and Shirley Nelson at a September 14 meeting at their farm, which would border the wind project, by Gil Livingston, president of the Vermont Land Trust. Until late June of this year Mary Powell, president of GMP, was also chairman of the board of trustees of the Vermont Land Trust (VLT).

The Nelsons rejected the proposal.

Green Mountain Power said it would not play a financial role in the land purchase.

“Green Mountain Power was not involved in any financing,” said Dorothy Schnure, a spokesperson for the utility. “All we did was bring the parties together. We were trying to help the Nelsons.”

The next day, however, Trip Wileman, the Nelsons’ neighbor to the west whose land would host most of the wind project, said he had contemplated donating as much as $250,000 to help the land trust purchase the development rights to the Nelson farm. Mr. Wileman said he had asked Green Mountain Power if it would lend him the money.

“We discussed the possibility of using my royalty income to offset the price – to act as my bank,” Mr. Wileman said. “They were receptive to the possibility.”

Part of the deal, Mr. Wileman said, would have been a written agreement that the farm’s new owners would not oppose anything he chose to do with his land, including the GMP wind project that is now before the state Public Service Board (PSB).

The Nelsons have been granted intervener status in the PSB proceedings, and are expected to vigorously oppose the project. If they had sold by November, as the deal contemplated, they would presumably have lost their standing to play any formal role in opposition to the wind project.

Mr. Livingston said a sense of fairness led him to meet with the Nelsons to tell them that GMP would be involved in the purchase. He knew the Nelsons had strong feelings about the wind project, he said in a Sept. 16 interview.

“I was aware, certainly aware, that the Nelsons were opposed to the project, and would be disproportionately affected by it,” Mr. Livingston said. “That was the reason for Tuesday’s meeting.

Mr. Livingston said he first heard from GMP about the Nelson farm in February. “They had no specific idea in mind,” Mr. Livingston said of GMP. “They simply asked if we would be interested in working with them. We just talked about options.”

At that time, the Lowell Mountain project was a hot topic in town. The Town Meeting vote in favor of the project was preceded by a series of public meetings, organized in turn by GMP and its opponents, at which the Nelsons spoke against putting the turbines on the ridgeline overlooking their farm.

Although he didn’t identify the farm at the time, realtor Dan Maclure used it at the meetings in Lowell to support his argument that industrial-scale wind projects lower area property values. He talked of several prospective buyers who were excited by the property, but walked away after he told them of GMP’s plans. Originally offered at $1,500,000, the farm is now for sale for $1,070,000, Mr. Maclure said in a September 16 interview.

Mr. Livingston said he never discussed the purchase of the Nelson farm with Ms. Powell, the president of GMP and, until late June, chairman of his board.

The land trust preserves farmland in Vermont by buying the development rights, leaving the owner free to sell the property as a working farm, at a price farm economics can support.

A potential buyer came to the VLT sometime last spring. He is Justin Poulin who, with his wife, Angie, and their two young daughters, runs a mixed farming operation on leased land in the town of Brookfield, just north of Randolph.

Mr. Poulin said he had been looking at farms and discussing other farms with VLT for more than a year. He saw the Nelson farm in a real estate ad, visited, and got to know the Nelsons.

“We really liked the farm,” Mr. Poulin said in a Sept.17 interview.

He was particularly drawn to the farm’s maple trees which, he estimated, could support between 10,000 and 12,000 taps. Mr. Nelson said later he was surprised by that estimate, since he hasn’t sugared on the farm.

But the price, Mr. Poulin said, “was not realistic without a conservation easement. Most farms aren’t realistic without a conservation easement.”

The problem, for VLT and the Poulins, was timing. They run a small herd of beef cattle on leased land that once belonged to Ms. Poulin’s grandfather. But the lease was only a verbal agreement with the original buyer, Mr. Poulin said, and his descendants decided the animals would have to go by November.

It can take a year, sometimes two years, for VLT to line up the funds to purchase the development rights to a particular farm, Mr. Poulin said.

Green Mountain Power had already expressed its interest in helping the Nelsons sell out.

“I introduced the Green Mountain Power folks to this young couple,” the VLT president said. “Green Mountain Power expressed an interest in helping the couple find the financing they would require.”

GMP turned to Mr. Wileman, the landowner said.

“Prior to my becoming involved, the Vermont Land Trust had approached Green Mountain Power” about buying the development rights to the Nelson farm, Mr. Wileman said.

“Green Mountain power said no, they were not interested. That’s when I became involved.”

“The deal was going to be with me,” Mr. Wileman said. “GMP is a utility. They don’t buy farms.”

“Green Mountain Power approached me when it became obvious they would have to have somebody contribute funds,” Mr. Wileman said. “They figured I might be interested.”

Mr. Wileman was interested, though he wanted a couple of things in return.

One was a right-of-way through the Nelson farm to provide access to what he called the “back side” of his extensive holdings of timberland on Lowell Mountain. Although the Nelsons and Wilemans are neighbors, they live in different communities that are 18 miles apart, by road. The only access to the Wileman property is through Lowell. The road to the Nelson’s farm rises out of Albany Village.

As long as the land has been in his family, Mr. Wileman said of the back side, “it had been effectively dead space.”

He and Mr. Poulin agree that the right-of-way was to be for timber access only; that it would not be used to give GMP access to its wind turbine sites.

The other thing Mr. Wileman wanted was an agreement that the Poulins or anybody they might sell land to “won’t fight what Trip is doing with his land.”

In a nutshell, Mr. Wileman said, “They agree in exchange for $250,000 not to tell me what I could or couldn’t do with my land.”

That agreement, he said in answer to a question, would cover GMP’s Lowell Mountain wind project.

A quarter of a million dollars, Mr. Wileman agreed, is a lot of money. His two demands, he said, were “at least something I could – after some mental hula hoops – justify I was getting something of value for such a princely sum.”

Mr. Wileman said he at first expected his participation to cost only $25,000, but the estimate climbed to between $100,000 and $125,000, and finally to between $200,000 and $250,000.

He said he had not made a final decision to go through with the deal. Nor, he said, had he made any formal arrangement to borrow the money from GMP.

The GMP spokesman, Ms. Schnure, called the Chronicle Monday to clarify her company’s position.

“We were willing to be backup to help Trip finance that,” she said of the proposed deal. Since the Nelsons rejected a deal involving GMP, she said, “Now, Trip will do that on his own, if that’s acceptable to them.”

That seems unlikely.

Dan Maclure, who heads Century 21 Farm & Forest Realty, Inc., was dubious when Mr. Nelson asked him to come to the September 14 meeting at the farm.

“He said Poulin wanted to move the cattle to the farm in October,” Mr. Maclure said. “I said ‘Don, with the land trust involved, there’s no way we’ll close in October.’ It usually takes a year, even two years, to go through the process.”

“I had never met the Poulins,” Mr. Maclure continued. “They’re a nice couple. Don and Shirley were excited,” he added, at the possibility that a farmer would buy the place – “to see a nice young family up there.

“I said we’ll find out Tuesday,” Mr. Maclure said.

At the meeting, he said, “Gil wanted to explain what had happened. He mentioned that Green Mountain Power would be instrumental in putting a deal together.

“That’s when Don and Shirley’s faces kind of did a 180-degree turn,” Mr. Maclure said. “It was like when you’ve got a nice sunny day, and all of a sudden you’ve got torrential rain.”

“Shirley said ‘I knew they were involved,’” Mr. Maclure reported.

“Don said, ‘I was going to ask. I’m glad you told me.’”

“It was grim news,” Mr. Livingston said of his announcement that GMP would play a role in the purchase.

“It was a very difficult conversation,” he said. “Everybody there was crying at one point or another – including yours truly.”

When Mr. Livingston mentioned the right-of-way for Mr. Wileman, Mr. Maclure said, “That was like a kick in the nuts. When they threw in Trip Wileman’s name, it was like throwing salt in the wound.”

At the mention of Mr. Wileman’s name, Mr. Nelson said, “I said, ‘Stop right there!’”

Besides their bitter disagreement over putting 20 wind towers on Lowell Mountain, the neighbors have a longstanding boundary dispute.

Mr. Wileman said he had their common line surveyed because he suspected that loggers for Mr. Nelson had cut old-growth maples off his land.

Mr. Wileman said he considers the boundary a settled matter, the subject of a signed agreement.

But Mr. Nelson continues to believe Mr. Wileman claims land that belongs to his farm. He has retained Newport attorney Duncan Kilmartin to represent him in the matter.

“I was retained to take appropriate legal action to set aside a boundary agreement,” Mr. Kilmartin said Monday.

Two days after the meeting at the Nelson farm, Mr. Maclure said he doesn’t understand why GMP remained so far in the background of the deal.

The September 14 meeting broke up before an offer was put on the table, Mr. Maclure said. He learned the next day that it would be $870,000, the value set in an appraisal obtained by VLT.

“I know Don and Shirley are not interested in that number,” Mr. Maclure said.

The realtor expressed a concern for the Nelsons that goes beyond the price of their farm, which he said he has shown to 20 potential buyers.

“I told Don, ‘This is killing you guys.’ You can see it in their faces, how much they’ve aged over the last few years. Then the fire deal.”

The Nelsons are convinced that the fire which destroyed their empty barn in mid-August was deliberately set. Police say the fire is still under investigation.

Ms. Schnure continued to insist last week that GMP was just trying to be helpful.

“Obviously, we’re up there in the community,” she said of Lowell. “We’d heard the Nelsons say ‘We can’t sell the farm.’ We like to solve problems.

“It would help everyone,” Ms. Schnure said of the deal GMP tried to put together. “The Nelsons would sell their farm. It would preserve the land in active farming. It would help a young couple who are active in farming. It seemed, if we could bring them together, it would solve what we thought was a local problem.”

Mr. Poulin was clearly disappointed that his family won’t be moving onto Lowell Mountain this fall. A graduate of the Randolph Technical Center, he remains active in FFA (formerly Future Farmers of America), on the board of its statewide fund-raising arm, the FFA Foundation.

Mr. Poulin said he planned to reserve 20 acres in the farm’s southwest corner, where there’s a small pond, as an FAA camp.

He made his best friend in this area, Tyler Mason of Albany, through the FFA. Mr. Mason has worked at the Poulins’ sugaring operation in Brookfield, and Mr. Poulin said he hoped to work with him in his new sugarbush in Lowell.

Ironically, Mr. Mason is among the more visible opponents of the GMP wind project. He has attended meetings organized in area towns to discuss the project, and spoken against it several times.

For his part, Mr. Poulin said, “I don’t know a whole lot about wind power. I don’t know if I’m a proponent or opponent of wind. We thought it was something we could live with.

“We’re not experiencing wind here,” Mr. Poulin said later in the interview. “We’re experiencing the influx of development, of second homes. There’s no way to attack that.”

Editor’s note: This story is by Chris Braithwaite, the founder and publisher of the Barton Chronicle.

URL to article:  https://www.wind-watch.org/news/2010/10/02/vermont-land-trust-deal-in-lowell-sours-over-wind-project/