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GMP may soon break ground

State regulators on Wednesday gave what appears to be a green light to Green Mountain Power to begin constructing 21 industrial-grade wind turbines on Lowell’s ridge line.

In a 2-1 decision, the Vermont Public Service Board signed off on remediation work on land to be conserved in mitigation for the loss of ridge line habitat for the Lowell wind project. They did not require more hearings.

The lone dissenter on the board warned that the due process rights of opponents are being violated without more hearings, even while noting that GMP is under time constraints to begin construction soon.

The Public Service Board has already issued a certificate of public good for the project called Kingdom Community Wind. A series of conditions must be met before the turbines can be turned on, but all the conditions that needed to be met before GMP can break ground appear to be resolved.

GMP spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said Wednesday that officials at GMP are poring over the 18-page decision. GMP is not ready to announce when or if construction would begin soon.

“We are just making absolutely sure that we’ve got everything we need before starting construction,” Schnure said.

The board granted GMP and partners Vermont Electric Cooperative and VELCO, the state electricity transmission company, a certificate of public good in May to erect turbines that are 459 feet tall from base to blade tip. Co-op members voted overwhelmingly in July to upgrade a transmission line to carry the electricity from the wind project.

The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources supported the project after GMP agreed to set aside hundreds of acres of nearby forest for wildlife conservation.

GMP wanted to begin construction by Aug. 1 to be completed by the end of 2012 in time to secure federal tax credits worth millions to keep the power costs of the project among the lowest for renewable energy in the state.

The certificate requires GMP to cut a deal with property owner Trip Wileman of Lowell to conserve hundreds of acres of wilderness near the ridge line in mitigation for the project. But logging work by Wileman’s company on roads on the land to be conserved created a problem, requiring reseeding of road edges and repair of a beaver pond wetland. Wileman agreed to restrict work on the property and set aside even more land for conservation in reparation for the work.

ANR officials with GMP found the logging work, worked with GMP on solutions and approved of the reparations to the land.

That left the Public Service Board to decide if the remediation work was good enough to live up to the original certificate of public good.

The three-member board is divided.

Board Chairman James Volz and member David Coen found that GMP’s remediation actions, in addition to the conservation of more land, adequately offset the impacts of the logging work.

They denied the request by opponents – the Lowell Mountain Group and the towns of Albany and Craftsbury – for technical hearings.

The opponents wanted the chance to quiz ANR and GMP experts about what happened.

“The towns further argue that construction cannot be allowed to commence prior to a board determination that the impacts from the project have been properly mitigated,” the majority board members said in their ruling. “The towns also assert that the board cannot rule on this matter by taking only the word of the petitioner, as this would clearly violate the due process rights of other parties.

“ANR concludes that the proposed supplemental mitigation and the increased restrictions on allowed uses on the mitigation parcels results in even greater protection of wildlife within the Lowell Mountain Habitat Block than what was contemplated” under the original certificate of public good, the majority board members said.

“We conclude that GMP’s remediation actions and proposed supplemental mitigation have adequately addressed the impacts resulting from recent unauthorized activities,” Volz and Coen wrote.

Burke, in his dissenting opinion, said he disagreed with the decision not to grant technical hearings for the opponents.

He said it isn’t clear to him that the remediation work and setting aside more land for conservation would make up for the impact of the wind project on the entire ridge line.

“I do not believe the board should decide on the adequacy of GMP’s remediation actions and proposed supplemental mitigation without first giving the towns and Lowell Mountain Group an opportunity to cross examine ANR’s expert under oath as to that very question,” Burke wrote.

“The towns and Lowell Mountain Group bear no responsibility for the current situation since it was GMP who chose to deal with Mr. Wileman and I believe that the due process concerns require us to hold technical hearings, rather than deny them,” Burke wrote.

He disagreed about the process of the majority decision, not whether he disagreed with the final decision or not.

Burke questioned whether his colleagues should make their decision without even a sworn statement from the ANR expert, relying instead on a letter from an ANR employee “who spoke to the expert.”

“I understand that time constraints exist in this matter and the effect delay could have on the economic viability of the project, but that does not legitimize the abrogation of the parties’ constitutional rights,” Burke concluded.

“Thus, I dissent.”