Vermont utility regulators have reacted to wind opponents’ concerns about a plan to conserve nearly 1,700 acres to compensate for the loss of habitat on Lowell Mountain.
The Vermont Public Service Board agreed with the towns of Albany and Craftsbury and set up a one-day technical hearing in March to look at how a road that runs through Echo Forestry lands in Eden would affect the large swath of conserved land there.
The board members, in an order issued Thursday, said they want Green Mountain Power and the state of Vermont to explain why the road would not affect the proposed wildlife corridor.
But PSB said there aren’t enough concerns to put a stop to ongoing construction of the Lowell wind site until the issue is reviewed.
PSB granted a certificate of public good to GMP last May to erect 21 industrial-grade turbines on the Lowell ridgeline. As part of the certificate, the board gave GMP until the end of 2011 to create what’s called a habitat fragmentation-conservation easement that would mitigate for the fragmentation of habitat on the ridgeline.
GMP, working with the forestry company, the Vermont Land Trust and the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, inked a deal worth more than $1 million in December to create a stretch of land where animals could move unimpeded by man.
The easements connect the Green River State Park with the Atlas Timberlands near Albany, creating a wildlife corridor. The land belongs to the forestry company but development rights have been conserved through the land trust, paid for by GMP.
GMP also conserved other lands on the mountain as part of its certificate.
In late December, the board approved the easements, saying that GMP had met the deadline.
Albany and Craftsbury as well as the Lowell Mountain Group protested. They questioned how the forestry company would use the conserved land to haul wood.
The opponents also sought to have PSB stop work on the project until the questions were answered.
The board said that GMP complied with the condition to protect land in mitigation for the wind project, based on ANR’s support for the easements. However, the board said that there should be an independent review by the board, to give the board’s experts and the opponents a chance to hear the arguments that ANR would offer in support.
“We conclude … that additional information is required for use to reach a definitive conclusion that the intended functions of the easements are not unduly impacted by the presence of East Hill Road and the activities allowed within the easement parcels,” the board wrote.
But the board cautioned that no one should read too much into the decision to have a new hearing.
“Today’s order should not be read as a decision that the easements are not in compliance with condition 17. Rather, we have determined that sufficient questions have been raised … that require additional evidence regarding the adequacy of the easements,” the board wrote.
Board members James Volz, David Coen and John Burke limited the opponents to raise questions about the road and human activity in the easements.
The board rejected additional concerns about why the easements weren’t located elsewhere.
The board did note that ANR did not file a sworn statement defending its support for the easements despite complaints from the opponents.
And the board said it took GMP too long to provide a map of the easement parcels to the board and the parties.
“Given the significance of this issue, we would have expected these parties to be more forthcoming with more detailed information …” the board wrote.
The board gave all parties involved until Feb. 27 to file expert testimony.and warned that the one-day hearing “is not an opportunity to re-litigate issues that were already decided by the board …”