Construction has officially begun atop Georgia Mountain, the site for four 440-foot tall wind turbines that project owners plan to erect this summer.
Georgia Mountain Community Wind, a pet project of Georgia-based Harrison Concrete Construction owner Jim Harrison’s, has also recently received financial backing from a new partner, renewable energy guru David Blittersdorf.
Project representative Martha Staskus said the Harrisons needed more financial support as project costs increased.
“That’s the way projects go: You need more funds, you need more people,” she said.
Enter Blittersdorf, CEO of Hinesburg company AllEarth Renewables and founder of NRG Systems, a wind turbine measuring company that’s now headed by his wife, Jane.
“Here’s two native Vermonters developing a project that’s been financed by a Vermont bank, and all the power generated is going to a Vermont utility,” Staskus said, noting Merchants Bank and Burlington Electric, respectively. “Talk about recycling Vermont dollars.”
But the project’s neighbors, some of whom have been opposed from the get-go, aren’t excited about the new developments.
Georgia residents Scott and Melodie McLane, who live about 3,500 feet from the site, said the landowner intervenors weren’t informed Georgia Wind received transportation permits, a condition in the project’s certificate of public good issued by the Vermont Public Service Board in June 2010, required before construction commenced.
The McLanes noticed the activity from their porch: “There’s trees being cut off the top of the mountain in a big way,” Melodie McLane said. “We were shocked.”
The McLanes immediately petitioned the PSB, not knowing that the certificate of public good doesn’t contain a provision requiring Georgia Wind to notify anyone they received the permits.
“We think that’s a big oversight on the Public Service Board’s part,” Melodie McLane said, noting the intervenors have been otherwise kept in the loop.
“It just seems contrary to the whole process,” Scott McLane added.
Staskus said Georgia Wind obtained the transportation permits – needed to truck the super-heavy turbines to the site – from two state agencies and the towns of Milton and Westford by the end of April.
“We didn’t have to notify anybody,” Staskus said. “We just had to have them.”
Construction and grant money
According to documents filed with the PSB last fall, Georgia Wind pushed to start construction before getting transportation permits to meet a deadline for a multimillion-dollar federal grant. The PSB denied Georgia Wind’s request to allow this.
The project owners were antsy to start building because they either had to start work “of a significant nature” or spend 5 percent of the total project cost before the end of 2011 to reach a safe harbor. The latter could include development, planning and engineering costs, not necessarily construction, according to Blittersdorf’s lawyer, Andrew Raubvogel, in a March 2012 letter to the PSB.
To qualify for the money – tax credits under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 – the project has to be in service by December 31, 2012, documents say.
Turns out Georgia Wind met the 5 percent threshold, spending $2.5 million of the estimated $27 million total cost in 2011, and obtained permits before starting construction two weeks ago, Raubvogel wrote.
Staskus wasn’t sure how much the grant will cover but said it will amount to millions of dollars in savings for the project owners.
Skepticism and optimism
Despite realizing the project is fully permitted, the McLanes are still skeptical Georgia Wind has fully played by the rules.
Melodie McLane said Harrison’s crews cleared trees last year, far before permits were received, in the project area.
Harrison’s attorneys, in memos to the PSB, said the work was for Harrison’s sugarhouse project and “do not constitute site preparation or construction related to the wind generation facility.”
Scott McLane also doubts the extent of Harrison’s involvement and thinks the neighbors should have been told about Blittersdorf.
Non-intervenor and neighbor R.J. Potter of Milton, in a press release by citizen advocate group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, put it sharply: “How about sending us a postcard?” he asked. “I guess Blittersdorf doesn’t really care about his neighbors.”
Raubvogel responded in a May 7 memo saying just because Georgia Wind has new members doesn’t mean the certificate of public good needs to be transferred; “[Georgia Mountain Community Wind] has not sold the project,” he wrote.
The PSB issued a memo May 10 to both parties, asking Georgia Wind to file additional information regarding a Vermont statute that says the PSB must approve acquisitions of a utility, which are under its jurisdiction. The company has until May 25 to address the matter, the memo says, after which intervenors have a week to respond.
The Vermont Secretary of State corporations website lists Blittersdorf as a member/manager of Georgia Mountain Community Wind, LLC. A search for Jim Harrison in relation to Georgia Wind yielded no results.
“That is concerning because this is a huge thing that’s happening in our backyard,” Melodie McLane said of Blittersdorf’s involvement. “It would be nice to know who’s heading up that huge thing and [if they are] going to be good neighbors about it.”
The McLanes are most concerned about noise and light flicker from the turbine blades. Scott McLane said he’s more worried for his neighbors, especially Ken and George Wimble who said the turbines, though not yet built, are already hurting the sale of their farm.
The Wimbles have a 265-acre organic farm in Georgia where their 70 dairy cows roam. The duo, who are both in their 60s and have run the farm for 30 years, want to retire. They’ve had their land on the market for five years.
In just this winter, two potential buyers backed out after hearing about the wind farm, the Wimbles said.
To them, that’s proof the turbines hurt their property value. But they also know they can’t stop the construction.
“It’s just a matter of time we’re gonna have them,” Ken Wimble said. “We gotta learn to live with them.”
Melodie McLane said she’s not even against wind power – just turbines near people.
“If you’re going to do it … get it over with, and do it big,” she said. “Don’t put four on every little Georgia Mountain in the state.”
Staskus was audibly excited about the “Vermont-scale” project starting this month. She expects the turbines to arrive this summer and said Blittersdorf and Harrison make good partners in the venture that’s finally coming to fruition.
“They’re a good match,” Staskus said. “David brings the wind experience, and Jim brings the passion for doing the right thing.”
Staskus also toted the benefits of creating employment and local energy. The project plans to hire at least 35 workers during road construction, she said.