LYNDONVILLE – The state Agency of Natural Resources District 7 Commission’s refusal to give Joan and Richard Downing an Act 250 permit to allow their 24-foot cross to remain outside their privately-owned chapel has a new twist.
The attorney for the Downings, who built the stone chapel on one of the most scenic roads in the region, is arguing that the wind turbines from the Sheffield wind farm under construction now have an impact on the same view shed where the state and neighbors argue the cross is out of character.
By the time the wind farm is complete – set for around Thanksgiving – there will be 16 turbines over 400 feet tall.
Attorneys for the state made their arguments before Environmental Court Judge Meridith Wright earlier this summer on challenges that the Downings’ Constitutional rights were violated and the ANR’s decision that the cross does not belong where it is. The Downings’ attorney argues the couple’s rights to religious freedom of expression are being trampled upon.
The District 7 Commission of the ANR ruled that the cross was “shocking and offensive,” and wants it down.
State attorneys confirmed that the evidence has been reopened for the case, due to the erection of the wind towers, but declined to comment for the record. The judge is agreeable to admitting new evidence based on the wind towers being in the view shed, attorneys on both sides said.
A site visit is being planned this fall for the judge to both take in the view of the wind towers, and the impact of the cross being lit. The Downings reduced the illumination significantly since it first was lit but it is darkened now because it is not permitted to be lit.
The Downings had first encountered a battle with local officials over the cross not having a permit, then its size being called into question, then its internal illumination being a point of major contention.
A handful of property owners near the cross have continued to argue that it has had a detrimental effect on the night sky when lit, and that it is out of character with the rural setting.
In the end, the town of Lyndon permitted the cross to remain where it is, and at the size it is, after first wanting it replaced with a smaller structure.
The Downings were granted, by the Lyndon Development Review Board, permission to light the cross during one Christmas season, but they returned to the DRB seeking permission to light it for extended and multiple periods of religious observation, and were denied that, and are appealing the town’s decision, too. The town of Lyndon is waiting on the outcome of the state case at present.
L. Brooke Dingledine, the attorney representing the Downings in Environmental Court, said in recent days that she had not realized the Sheffield turbines are viewable from the cross site – and the properties of objecting neighbors.
A site visit will “illustrate for the judge any testimony that she has heard or is going to hear,” said Dingledine. “In other words, the court cannot say, ‘Well, no one mentioned this, but when I was there, I saw such and such…that’s prohibited.”
Dingledine said she had already been seeking a site visit to the cross site at night because one neighbor said he could see the light coming from the cross’ back side and others said when lit it ruined their view of the night sky.
“There was testimony from two neighbors to how this (the cross) is so bright, one cannot view the night sky, star gaze,” said Dingledine. “I felt that it was necessary in light of hearing this new evidence and the fact that the judge had not seen the cross lit for some time that she should be able to see it,” she said.
John Irwin, who, with his wife, Barbara, was in court this summer testifying about the impact the cross has had on their view, said of the Downings’ lawyer re-opening evidence due to the wind farm, “I don’t know what it has to do with the case, I have no idea why they’re re-opening it.”
Irwin said he and his wife received a statement in the mail about that fact in recent days.
“It doesn’t seem to have any relationship to the cross,” said Irwin. “The lights on the wind towers that would be a safety issue, there’s no safety issue with the cross that I know of, maybe there is and I don’t know about it…the wind towers aren’t internally lit. I don’t know what the angle is.”
David Gascon, who lives directly across the street, and also objects to the cross being lit, said, “I don’t really know. I don’t really have anything to say about, because I haven’t looked into it. I’m just kind of tagging along at this point. I haven’t been involved in anything about the wind towers. I’m not sure what their intention is, either … I really have no opinion.”
In answer to the neighbors questioning why the case is reopened, Dingledine said, “The reopening of the evidence has to do with the fact that now that there are 16 wind towers with lights on them (400) feet high in the view shed that changes things and I found out before a decision was made…It’s important, it’s relevant and the judge is happy to reopen the evidence. I’m just trying to figure out how to do it as expeditiously as possible.”
Dingledine said a planned site visit on Aug. 30 was called off because of a cloudy forecast; a new conference call will determine when the site visit will be. She said the couple and some supporters gathered that night at the cross when it was dark, about 9 p.m., and the cross was turned on for a few brief moments, sparking some concern. “It was on for all of two minutes,” said Dingledine.
Dingledine said some neighbors have also expressed concern over seeing newspaper taped to the sides of the cross and work being performed on it. To that, Dingledine replied, “The nuns who gave the Downings the cross were coming to visit and they wanted to make sure it looked tip-top perfect shape.”
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