MONTPELIER – Heated allegations by an attorney that a study on the aesthetic impacts of the proposed Lowell Mountain wind project were tilted heavily in favor of money and power prompted the chairman of the Public Service Board Tuesday to call for a return to civility, during the fourth day of hearings here on a petition to erect up to 21 turbines on the mountain.
“You’re being awfully combative,” noted James Volz, who heads the three-member board, known as the PSB. “We don’t approve of it,” he said, adding that the attorney’s approach was neither typical of the process nor productive.
The chairman’s admonition came during an exchange between David Raphael – a landscape architect employed by the project’s developer, Green Mountain Power, and Gerald Tarrant, a Montpelier attorney representing the Green Mountain Club.
The club is the state’s host to the Long Trail, part of the oldest and longest hiking trail in the country. The trail passes through Lowell Mountain, and Raphael and Tarrant could not agree on how many turbines would be visible from one of the popular huts along the trail.
“How many turbines do you count there,” asked Tarrant, after showing a photo of the ridgeline that was one of the photos contained in Raphael’s report.
“Twenty-one,” he responded.
“Yes,” said Tarrant, returning back to an earlier response in which the architect said four turbines would be visible. “That was wrong, correct?
“No,” said Raphael, but before he could finish explaining that the wind farm’s visibility was relative, depending on one’s location by the hut, he was interrupted.
“So, you could kneel down behind a tree and not see it?” charged Tarrant, his voice rising sarcastically.
Tuesday’s spirited exchange served to illuminate the fundamental differences between environmentalists who are pushing wind as the most viable renewable energy source to lessen the state’s dependency of fossil fuels and those who believe that Vermont ridgelines are no place for industrial wind farms.
Known as Kingdom Community Wind, the project is going before the board with two options. One would create a wind farm with 21 turbines with the capacity of producing 63 megawatts of power; the other would other would come in at 50 MW to be generated by 20 turbines.
Charles Pughe, Green Mountain’s general manager, told the board on Wednesday, Feb. 2, – the opening day of the hearing – that no decision has been made on what brand of turbines the company will use.
According to testimony, the project would be constructed on roughly 124 acres of land. Pughe said that 75 percent of the leases and rights-of-way have been acquired from 100 or so landowners. If the Board grants Green Mountain Power permission to go ahead with the project, condemnation proceedings would begin immediately against landowners who refuse to work with the company, he said. One holdout late in January was recently offered $652 for an easement on his property, according to a letter from a lawyer representing Green Mountain Power and Vermont Electric Cooperative.
In the two years it has taken to plan the project, Pughe testified there had been “no show stopper,” noting that the project easily won support from Lowell voters. Opponents have criticized the vote, charging the results were skewed because the ballot included the dollar amount the town would receive in taxes if the project went through.
The chairman of the Lowell Selectmen, who testified last week, said the ballot was properly worded.
“I felt the voters should know what they were voting on,” he said of the decision to include on the ballot the $400,000 the company would pay annually in taxes.
“I think that’s what the select board’s job is,” he added a little later.
Later in the day, an economist hired by Green Mountain Power said a wind farm on Lowell Mountain would not adversely affect property values or tourism. Tom Kavet, who is also an economic adviser to the Vermont Legislature, testified that the wind farm would have to be built before it could be determined what its impact would be on community property values.
“What matters is actual transactions,” he said at one point. “What matters is not what you think but what happens after you build it.”
To David Stackpole, a Lowell attorney representing himself, Kavet’s conclusions sounded tentative.
“Why is this not advocacy?” he asked, commenting on the testimony.
According to testimony, the wind farm is expected to produce between 6 and 7 percent of the annual power required by Green Mountain to supply its customers. As one of the early witnesses in the hearings, the company’s CEO Mary Powell, defended its decision to own a power source rather than buy or rent power from someone else.
When a power contract comes to the end of its term, Powell said, her company has no leverage; it has to start from scratch in negotiating a new power price. But if it owns the facility, it has an asset that produces power at a known cost. And while a wind farm was not for the “faint of heart,” she went on to say that the Lowell wind farm “makes the most sense for the state of Vermont.”
But from the very beginning of the hearings, Tarrant contended that all the other factors were being downplayed in the face of wind becoming economically viable for the company.
“GMP is opposing the visual impact solely on economic reasoning,” he charged while cross-examining the company’s general manager.
Prior to the hearings, the Green Mountain Club and GMP worked out a compromise to install a lighting system on the towers that would only be activated when an aircraft is flying in the area. But Tarrant wondered why when it came to the number of turbines the company was considering, there were only two options and not three.
A third option, he suggested, would be to erect 17 turbines, each with a 3MW capacity. That would meet the company’s goal of running a wind farm with the capacity of producing between 50 and 63 MW of power.
“It’s not about the number, but the capacity, correct?” he asked Pughe, suggesting the board should have the flexibility of choosing a third option.
Pughe said to reduce the number of turbines would cost the company money, and that the goal is to get the highest output of power from the wind the site offered.
But Tarrant argued that a balance had to be struck between a wind farm’s power production and the impact it would have on the area. The problem with the application, he added, was that the pre-filed testimony was based on erecting the largest number of turbines, especially when it came to the project’s aesthetic impact.
He went on to say that Raphael, the company’s expert on aesthetics, had already “taken the ball and ran with it.”
On the stand Tuesday, Raphael had to defend challenges from Tarrant that his assessment of the project’s visual impact was based on the wind farm’s economic viability.
In an exasperating exchange, the two men went back and forth on how a visual impact was assessed from a popular hut or camp on the Long Trail.
Raphael testified the assessment was done by using both simulation and the results of a field study. The key question of a visual impact appeared to be what does one see?
Earlier, under cross examination from attorney Geoffrey Commons, of the Department of Public Service – the public watchdog in matters of electric generation and utility charges to ratepayers – Raphael testified it is the turbine’s hub and not the tip of the blades that is measured when it comes to visibility. He also testified there were three homes within one mile of the proposed wind farm, and that the project’s visual impact would be greater on people who were standing still than those walking along a trail.
“Clearly we are dealing with generalities, right?” Commons asked.
“Yes,” replied Raphael, who went to say that the visual impact would be greater on cross-country skiers than it would on snow machine riders.
“Which one is a dog sled more like?” asked Commons, as conversation turned toward a dog sledding center in Eden.
In his overall aesthetic assessment of the project, Raphael found it would have no undue adverse effect – a conclusion that Tarrant argued was shortsighted.
Raphael told the board that he was asked to do his assessment on the basis of a 21-turbine wind farm. A farm with 17 to 19 turbines, he added, never came up prior to conducting the study.
He agreed that the Long Trail was the most significant asset in the viewshed, with unique scenic and conservation benefits to the public. But he quickly came under a withering attack when he conceded that before completing his report neither he nor any member of his staff had visited the popular hut or camp on the trail where the Lowell Mountain range is visible. He made it within 100 yards last winter, but had been turned back by the snow, he said.
“It’s not as if we ignored it,” he said a little later, adding that an assessment was made with help from his staff, using simulation and gathering information from a member of the Green Mountain Club.
With his ears still burning from the chairman’s scolding, Tarrant lightly requested a show of proof.
“Name, rank, and serial number of the Green Mountain Club member who said you could only see four turbines,” he said, minutes before ending his cross-examination Tuesday morning.
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