NEWPORT CITY – A judge’s signed order late Thursday stating that Green Mountain Power can use sheriff’s deputies or state police officers to deal with protesters at the Lowell wind project has not reached the desk of either the Orleans County sheriff or the commander of the local Vermont State Police force.
And without that order, no law enforcement official can act, Orleans County Sheriff Kirk Martin said Friday.
Neither Martin nor VPS Lt. Kirk Cooper of the Derby state police barracks can react to the judge’s order until they receive it in writing from the court. The order was not sent out because the court system was closed Friday for a statewide furlough day to save money.
Martin said he learned about the judge’s order like everyone else in the area – by reading and listening to news reports. But that isn’t enough to give them any authority to go up on the Lowell ridgeline and arrest anyone, he said.
“We are at a standstill,” Martin said late Friday afternoon. “Nothing can happen until we get our paperwork.”
More protesters were in place Friday, refusing to move out of the blast safety zone, and that limited blasting, GMP officials said.
Cooper and Martin were aware that protesters were camping on the edge of the Lowell wind project on the ridgeline land owned by opponents Don and Shirley Nelson. And Martin said he knew that there had been a restraining order of some kind. But knowing that and acting on it are two different things, he said.
On Oct. 14, Judge Martin Maley issued a temporary restraining order, telling the Nelsons to stop encouraging or allowing protesters to camp within a 1,000-foot safety zone on their property near where workers are blasting rock at one of the proposed turbine sites on the ridgeline. Maley said they were improperly interfering with the GMP wind project.
The Nelsons originally had welcomed the protesters, but by Monday had put up a sign at the court’s order telling the protesters to stay off the property. Since then, protesters have entered the Nelson property high on the eastern side of the ridge, out of sight of the Nelson farmhouse in the valley below.
On Thursday at a hearing about the restraining order, Maley didn’t have enough time to hear all the arguments. Late in the afternoon, Maley extended the temporary restraining order for another 10 days and specifically include the protesters in an addendum to the original order. But without court staff on duty Friday to process the order through official channels, the order did not go out to law enforcement agencies.
In this copy obtained by The Record, Maley said:
“It is hereby further ordered that all persons on the land of Donald and Shirley Nelson must stay 1,000 feet from the border of the Nelsons’ property with the project property of Green Mountain Power for two hours before the scheduled blasting until the all-clear whistle.
“The Orleans County Sheriff and the Vermont State Police are authorized and directed to arrest and remove any individuals within 1,000 feet of that boundary within the specified period.”
Maley also continued the hearing to Tuesday in Orleans Superior Court – Civil Division, where he is also expected to hear testimony supporting the Nelsons’ argument that they own part of the ridgeline where a handful of the 21 turbines are scheduled to be erected.
The Nelsons want a restraining order of their own to stop work on the project until the property dispute is resolved.
GMP officials contacted the sheriff’s department Friday about the temporary restraining order, the sheriff said.
Martin said he spoke to the president of the Vermont Sheriff’s Association to arrange for extra manpower if he needs it in carrying out any restraining order. He also said he sought legal advice.
Martin also said that he expects both he and Cooper will attend Tuesday’s continuation of the hearing.
Meanwhile, GMP contractors continued Friday to work at the wind project site.
This week, workers opened up the access road right to the top of the ridge and began work clearing trees and doing some blasting on the first wind turbine site, turbine No. 7. Blasting in preparation for the pad for the turbine was limited in scope mid-week because protesters were within the 1,000-foot safety zone.
Work continued to fully build up the access road. GMP officials said as many as 100 people were at work at the site as of Thursday.
GMP spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said late Friday that there were six protesters within the 1,000-foot safety zone who refused to move when warned that a blast was scheduled Friday afternoon. They did not move along when read the judge’s order telling them that they are not allowed in the safety zone, she said.
GMP contractors did a limited blast because they were in the safety zone, she said.
“We are really disappointed,” Schnure said. “We had hoped they would obey the judge’s order.”
Protesters have been taking turns manning the tent camp, climbing a steep road and muddy path to reach the mountainside spot. They have been going by pseudonyms, like Muskrat and Mrs. Muskrat, rather than revealing their names to the reporters who have trekked to the area over the past week since the protest began to have an impact on the wind project and the judge issued his restraining order.
Many have roots in the area, have hunted or hiked and camped on Lowell Mountain. They say they want to protect the existing environment from the wind development.
The protesters hope that they will be able to slow down the construction enough to stop it.
GMP officials said the wind project would go forward, regardless of delays. But they said the protests would be costly.
Charles Pughe, project manager for GMP, told the court that the delay of five and half weeks, if the protesters are allowed to remain in the blast safety zone, would push the start of electricity generation at the site past the end of 2012.
That would mean that GMP would not earn $47 million in federal production tax credits over the first 10 years of operation, money that would be passed on in the form of lower rates to ratepayers, Pughe told the court on Thursday.