LOWELL – From one side of Lowell Mountain, mammoth machines rumble up and down the hillside, constructing a new 2.3-mile dirt road, installing stormwater systems and blasting to clear the way for 21 wind turbines.
From the other side of the mountain, a small group of people gather along a dirt roadway that dates to 1776. They make the hour-long hike up a steep, muddy trail to the top of the mountain, where they have set up camp in hopes that their presence throws a chink into the blasters’ plans.
As construction began in earnest this month on Green Mountain Power Corp.’s Kingdom Community Wind project, the opponents’ battle to stop it converged on a ridgeline that those doing the construction considered too remote to be trouble. One observer likened it to the Battle of Antietam: Two sides coming at each other through the trees, strategizing the best way to thwart the other from taking control of the mountain.
Last week, the battle also moved to a courtroom in nearby Newport. There, lawyers for the utility and for Don and Shirley Nelson – owners of the land where the campers set up – argued about who really owns which pieces of land and who has the right to control what happens on top of the mountain.
“It’s a very difficult case,” Superior Court Judge Martin Maley said after 3½ hours proved to be too little time to hear the full case. “It’s very unusual.”
While Maley extended an order for 10 days that will allow Green Mountain Power to continue blasting, Green Mountain Power and the Nelsons will be back in court this week to continue sorting out issues surrounding property rights and property lines.
Character of the Kingdom
Retired dairy farmers, Don and Shirley Nelson stood in their driveway on Bayley Hazen Road on Wednesday morning, and a steady flow of visitors came by. Usually they don’t get this much traffic on a road that narrows after their house to no wider than a driveway, but the Nelsons have collected a following of people.
The Nelsons, whose 600-acre farm abuts land where Green Mountain Power plans to put the 459-foot turbines, have become the focal point of the fight against the project. Their land has, in essence, become the scene of the last stand against it.
The Nelsons have never had much regard for wind as an energy source. For 10 years there has been talk of wind turbines on Lowell Mountain, and all the way they have opposed it. Although they have been trying to sell their land for several years as part of their retirement plans, they turned down Green Mountain Power’s recent offer to buy it for their $1.25 million asking price. Instead, the Nelsons countered the offer by upping the price to $2.25 million.
“After 40 years of working, if you had to sell to someone who wanted to destroy what you built, would you?” asked Don Nelson, who grew up on the property and raised his family there. “They’re changing the character of the Northeast Kingdom.”
Green Mountain Power’s $1.25 million offer came shortly after a letter to the Nelsons warning them that Green Mountain Power would take them to court and hold them financially responsible for the cost of any delays caused by the campers on the ridgeline. The Nelsons characterize that as a threat to force them into selling.
“I was supposed to say, ‘Please don’t give me a million-dollar lawsuit,’” Don Nelson said. “It’s not going to happen.”
Green Mountain Power Corp. spokesman Robert Dostis said the company wasn’t threatening the Nelsons. The letter was in response to a letter from the Nelsons informing the utility that people would be camping near the blasting site, and was separate from the purchase offer, Dostis said.
Green Mountain Power considered the purchase offer a fair and decent way to settle the matter, Dostis said, and was surprised by the Nelsons’ decision to up the price. “We gave them the asking price,” he said. “To pay above the listed price didn’t seem right or fair.”
The Nelsons aren’t done fighting back. They’ve hired the Norwich law firm Hershenson, Carter, Scott and McGee to fight Green Mountain Power in court, including a contention that part of the land where Green Mountain Power plans to blast is actually owned by the Nelsons.
“This is going to be settled in court,” Nelson said.
The Nelsons said they’ve always let others use their property freely, whether it be hunters or Sterling College students on research projects. Last week, visitors to the property included up to a dozen people who were hoping their presence would delay blasting on the top of the mountain.
Technically, the Nelsons told visitors last week, a temporary restraining order Green Mountain Power had obtained declared everyone must stay at least 1,000 feet away from the blasting, but the couple did nothing to stop people from making the trek up the mountain. When Green Mountain Power representatives asked the campers to move for blasts that were within 1,000 yards Wednesday and Thursday, they refused.
Some of the visitors camped out on the Nelsons’ land within 700-800 feet of the blasting site. Others stayed down below on the road, communicating to the top via walkie-talkie.
Visitors declined to identify themselves to the media or to Green Mountain Power. The reason, said one with the nickname Mrs. Muskrat, was “because we don’t want to give Green Mountain Power anything they can use against us. We’re fighting as a group. This way, we can’t be separated out as individuals.”
Thursday afternoon in Newport, Green Mountain Power’s lawyers argued that the Nelsons should keep the visitors away from the blasting site. Judge Maley extended the temporary restraining order, but said the Nelsons were not obligated to enforce the order. In an addendum to the order, he directed the Orleans County Sheriff’s Department and the state police to keep the campers at least 1,000 feet away for an hour before and after each announced blast.
It didn’t quite work Friday. Because the court order was issued late Thursday, and courts were closed Friday, police won’t have access to the order until Monday and were unable to enforce it, Green Mountain Power spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure said. As many as 10 campers were within 1,000 feet of a late-afternoon blast Friday, which meant the company had to reduce the size of its blast.
“If they refuse to move, we have to modify the kind of blast,” Schnure said. “They’re not going to stop the project. It’s just going to raise the cost.”
The cost of delay
At Green Mountain Power’s staging area along Vermont 100 in Lowell, 162 workers are operating out of a row of trailers, where work started in early September. An 18-foot wide access road up the mountain should be completed in a couple weeks, said GMP construction manager John Stamatov. Crews will then build a 34-foot-wide crane path and then 21 turbine pads, he said.
Crews started blasting into rock at the top of the mountain Tuesday and Wednesday to make way for the roads and the turbine pads, using rock produced by the blasting in the construction of those paths.
The campers who hiked in from the Nelsons’ side of the mountain gathered between where turbines 6 and 7 are slated to go.
In court Thursday, Green Mountain Power and its contractors testified that trying to ensure the safety of campers within 1,000 feet of the blasting would make for costly delays to the project.
Steven Blaisdell, vice president of Maine Drilling & Blasting, a subcontractor that is doing the blasting work, said plans call for the blasting to produce 5,000 cubic yards of rock a day that will then be used to create the crane path. If his crews have to deal with having people within 1,000 feet of blasting, he said, they will have to use less force and more tempering measures, slowing the project by 5½ weeks and costing more than $1 million.
In court, the Nelsons’ attorneys argued Green Mountain Power managed to make up for delays after state regulators issued two stop work orders on the project, but contends it can’t do the same for this delay.
Green Mountain Power can’t afford another delay, said Charles Pughe, the company’s project manager. The company needs to have the turbines in place, connected to the electric grid and producing power by Dec. 31, 2012, to qualify for $48 million production tax credits from the federal government – money that will go to the utility’s customers, he testified. The project is slated to be completed Dec. 3, he said, calling it a challenging deadline that will require work to be done six days a week.
Dostis, a former legislator from Waterbury who has long supported renewable energy projects, bristles at opponents’ allegation that Green Mountain Power is pushing this project for the money.
“There are so many more benefits to having power produced in Vermont than us buying it from somewhere else,” he said. Among them: The utility will employ 200 people and pay more than $1 million in taxes on the project, Dostis said. “The benefits of wind outweigh the impact we’re having on the mountain.”
The value of a mountain
Steve Wright, a former state Fish & Wildlife commissioner and former president of Sterling College who lives in Craftsbury, had planned to sink himself into photography in his retirement. Instead, he spends all his time working on the fight against the Lowell wind project, raising money and working with lawyers on strategy.
“It’s no small matter,” Wright said of the impact of the project on the surrounding land.
He and others object not just to looking up at 21 wind turbines sticking 480 feet out of the tree-covered mountain range, but to the overall effect on the environment.
“While the view is important and a significant issue, it’s not the most important thing,” Wright said. He contends that construction of the access roads and the turbines will harm the streams, the wildlife and the air quality.
Touring the area Wednesday, Wright stopped at a brook that runs downstream from the mountain. If first Green Mountain Power’s project and then another planned wind project are allowed to be built on Lowell Mountain, these streams will be subject to extreme flooding that changes their course and structure, he said.
“This case is about all the mountains in Vermont,” he said, arguing that the state should attach a value to its natural resources to compare it to the value of the wind development. “That mountain is worth millions and millions.”
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