In the second of three weeks of Public Service Board hearings on the proposed Kingdom Community Wind project in Lowell, lawyers and self-represented individuals have sparred with witnesses over issues of economics, impacts to wildlife, plans for the site after decommissioning, and other issues. On Tuesday, all parties seemed to find one thing they agreed on: 400-foot wind turbines cannot be hidden.
Almost the entire day of testimony was taken up in cross-examination of David Raphael, owner of LandWorks, a Middlebury-based firm that has been conducting aesthetic assessments of Vermont projects for more than 20 years.
Raphael defended his conclusion that 20 or 21 wind turbines, each over 400 feet high, on or near the ridgeline of Lowell Mountain, would not have an “undue, adverse impact” on the scenic beauty of the region. Raphael testified as a witness for Green Mountain Power, the project leader for the proposed wind farm.
His conclusion was based on a three-part test, known in Vermont law as the Quechee analysis, which examines whether a project violates aesthetics standards.
Raphael testified that his work under Act 250 had often involved finding ways to mitigate aesthetic impacts by hiding a project in the landscape, particularly with plantings, no matter how beautiful the architecture of the building. With the wind farm, siting the tall turbines at or near the ridgeline is crucial for the project, GMP has argued. The winds blow substantially more at those heights, consequently, a “reasonable person” would not try to hide the turbines in a valley. Raphael argued, however, that the developers’ plans to regularly space the turbines along the ridgeline, instead of clumping them, gives a sense of visual harmony.
The wind farm hearings are being conducted under Section 248 of Title 30, which is the process analogous to Act 250 used for electrical facilities in Vermont. Unlike Act 250, Raphael explained, even if he had found undue, adverse aesthetic impact, it would not automatically stop a project evaluated under Section 248. The board has decided that their judgment of aesthetics is “significantly informed by overall societal benefits of the project.”
Raphael and his staff traveled extensively in the region, assessing where the project could be seen, how much of it could be seen, and whether the sight would be offensive. From many of the points considered, the turbines would be small, compared to the overall landscape. From other vantages, only a portion of the 20 or 21 turbines would be visible, or they would be visible for only a short time as a person traveled the roads or walked the trails or fields.
While he could produce photographic simulations that could give us a sense of what the project will look like, Raphael pointed out that the scenic beauty is ultimately in the eye of the beholder. Vermont’s landscape was once completely forested. The woods were clear-cut in the 19th century and in the 20th century the state’s forests gained new ground as agriculture declined.
Raphael speculated that as Vermont installs wind farms, people growing up in the late 21st century will accept them as part of the working landscape. He cited surveys of people living near wind farms in other parts of the country to show acceptance for the turbines.
Jared Margolis, representing the nearby towns of Albany and Craftsbury, argued that Vermonters are different than people in other parts of the country. Raphael countered that Vermonters are not unique.
Margolis: You would agree that we treat aesthetics in Vermont differently than in most other states, which is why we don’t have things like billboards on our roads, correct?
Raphael: I would say Vermont has probably been more proactive in certain regards, but if you ask someone from Maine or New Hampshire whether they think aesthetics are as important as Vermonters, they would probably answer yes.
Margolis and lawyers for other parties in the case sought to portray Raphael’s work as insufficient and inadequate. They noted that Raphael didn’t live in the region and didn’t know enough about it to make a judgment about its aesthetics. Raphael, for example, did not visit every property or every acre of the properties he did walk. His report included a map with the roads he drove to assess the views, but Margolis asked him to confirm from memory names of roads that he’d been on. Raphael, who submitted the report in May 2010 and said his office typically has 25 projects, could not recall whether he’d been on any of the named roads.
At one point, board member John Burke became exasperated with the questions to Raphael and asked, “Mr. Margolis, is it your belief he should have memorized the report?”
Don Nelson, owner of a farm near the proposed project, represents himself and his wife at the hearings. His questioning led Raphael to admit that some land owners will experience the turbines as being offensive. Nelson questioned Raphael about his visit to the Nelson home, where the only picture windows face west, towards the project land.
Nelson: How high do you figure towers will be in relation to height of mountains?
Raphael: I’m not sure what you mean by that.
Nelson: Do you have the average elevation of the base of the ridgeline? And then take the average elevation of the top?
Raphael: Well, I guess looking at the visual simulation from the area south of your home…it appears as though to the very tip of the blade it would be perhaps somewhere a little under 50 percent of the elevation.
Nelson: That’s gonna stick up pretty good then, isn’t it?
Board member John Burke followed up, and Raphael conceded, “You know, I cannot speak for the Nelsons. But putting myself in their shoes, I can understand how they would come to believe that this would be offensive to them.”
The continued exchange between Burke and Raphael highlights the tension between the private interests of individuals who live near the proposed facility and the public interest of Vermont ratepayers:
Burke: Is there any way, since you’ve visited the property, you’ve been inside house, that you would not consider that second option for your definition [of “undue”] would certainly apply, “not appropriate or proper,” in the circumstances? I mean, these are 460-foot towers that are in their backyard, correct?
Raphael: Well, my response to that is, everything you do, somewhere, is going to be in someone’s backyard.
Burke: And that’s my next question. So yet you found overall, even though you have almost acknowledged that as to these two individuals and their property that’s the case, you’ve found overall that there is not an undue, adverse impact. Can you explain that to me, and maybe to them and to the people that are here, as to why you differentiated here, why you would find it individually for them, maybe, but not for this project? Can you explain that?
Raphael: It goes to how we consider who the average or what the average person is. And I don’t believe that you can rely on an individual who will be directly impacted or directly affected by this project to provide you with sense of how average person will react. The average person is somebody who does not necessarily have an interest in the project or is directly affected or interested by the project. You have to step back and ask yourself, who is that average person? When you weigh the project in its aggregate, visually and otherwise, how would they respond to that project? And I do not believe – with all due respect to the Nelsons, and I don’t mean this the wrong way – they are not the average person. I mean, they are obviously directly affected and have an interest in this project not going forward because of that. So when we look at whether a project is appropriate, we can’t just look at whether it affects a single individual. Again it speaks to this issue we discussed a moment ago, about how we do accommodate the individual residents who are impacted.
On the first day of the hearings, Green Mountain Power vice-president Robert Dostis testified that GMP had learned early in the project planning that the Nelsons had been trying to sell their farm. He said he worked with the Vermont Land Trust to put together a deal for a young couple to buy the farm, with conservation easements attached to it, but when the Nelsons learned that GMP was involved, they did not want to proceed.