NEWARK – Alfred Cross Jr., a truck driver, was the fourth speaker one hot night last week in the elementary school gymnasium, home of the Newark Newts.
In front of him sat Public Service Board Chairman Jim Volz and a court reporter, tapping at her machine. Behind him, more than 100 people filled every folding chair, leaned in rows against the walls, clustered in the dark outside the gym’s open double doors.
The subject of this public hearing: Whether a New Hampshire company should be allowed to put up wind-measuring devices, known as met towers, atop Hawk Rock in Newark and on three mountains in nearby communities. The company has said it hopes eventually to erect as many as 35 commercial wind turbines on the ridgelines of Newark, Brighton and Ferdinand.
Cross stumbled a bit as he read from a hand-written sheet of paper.
“I have lived here all my life for 56 years with my wife Carol and my mother who lives with us,” he began. “Our four kids grew up here and moved away. Now we have four grandchildren. That’s great. That doesn’t have nothing to do with the met towers, I know.”
“We all know what comes next – wind turbines. … The big thing would be, the mountain totally ruined , the value of our land, homes , the animals,” he said. “These stupid ‘green’ towers. Please keep them out. I appreciate it. Thank you. Alfred Cross Jr.”
Cross would be followed to the microphone by nearly 50 people, most of them from Newark. Claire Van Vliet’s hands trembled as she read her statement. Noreen Hession’s voice shook. Linda Holden began to speak, then paused as tears came.
Teacher Sue Keefe began, “I didn’t know what to say. Someone said to me, ‘speak from the heart.’ This is about our health , our life, our land, our beauty.”
Tim King stepped to the microphone. “I beg you, we do not want any of this in our community.”
The people of Newark – a good cross-section of them – came one by one to describe to the Public Service Board their lives, their town and the reasons a commercial wind installation with its 400-foot tall machines would be wrong for their community.
They spent three hours, as the temperature rose in the gymnasium. One person spoke in support of Seneca Mountain Wind’s plans. From the other speakers there were stifled sobs, a song about the mountains and descriptions of a town of 581, many of whose residents have chosen to live there for the absence of development.
Almost certainly, none of what was said will affect the outcome of the case.
No place for the heart
The hearing’s purpose, Volz told the crowd, was to hear from the public – but on the very limited issues in the met tower case: Whether the guy-wired towers will have an adverse effect on black bear food sources or on a peregrine falcon nest on the Hawk Rock cliff.
Statements at a public hearing are not considered evidence, he said.
The Legislature has written the laws that set out what the PSB may consider. “We have to operate under the statute that we have. If you are not happy with the policy in the statute you should talk to your legislators,” he said.
An application for a certificate of public good – the permit required to build energy projects in Vermont – is a legal process. The board is required to weigh evidence, usually from credentialed experts, of the potential impact of an installation on the environment against its potential economic and energy benefits. There is no place in statute for emotion or speaking from the heart.
Town governments can become formal legal parties to a PSB case, as Newark has decided to do. The PSB must consider what the town and regional plans say, if anything, about wind energy development .
A majority of Newark voters have signed a petition opposing the wind development. The Newark Planning Commission last week drafted amendments to the town plan that say industrial wind turbines on ridgelines “are inconsistent with the town’s vision and goals.” The amendments will go to a vote of the townspeople in coming months and will have no effect on the met tower case.
Nor is the PSB required to turn down a project because a town has voted against it. That situation has not arisen yet in wind development cases in Vermont – host towns Lowell and Sheffield voted to endorse wind development – but the law is clear that a town’s position would be only one factor the PSB would weigh.
The separate Department of Public Service argues on behalf of the public in wind energy cases.
Her department takes local sentiment into account, Commissioner Liz Miller said last week, but a town’s position would not necessarily be determinative.
“We represent the public good more generally on a statewide basis,” she said.
Cloudscapes and home-raised hog meat
Inside the Newark gymnasium, the air grew hotter as the clock ticked towards 10 p.m. Sweat spread in stains across the backs of men in T-shirts as they spoke into the microphone. Outside, a summer storm was blowing up.
“My work is based on the extraordinary cloudscapes we experience on this high plateau on Newark, with its 360 views,” she said. “I moved here because Vermont was one of only two states that were depopulating. I hoped to live out my life in a landscape that was not disappearing from uncontrolled sprawl and development.”
“People should also be considered on the list of threatened species the Public Service Board and Agency of Natural Resources are considering in this decision,” she ended, to applause.
The bomb, a tumor, smallpox
The leaders of Eolian Renewable Energy of Portsmouth, N.H., proposers of Seneca Mountain Wind, sat in the front row facing a wall painted with a large purple newt inscribed “Graduating Class of 2003.”
That afternoon, they had led a cavalcade of cars carrying their environmental consultants, PSB hearing officer Bridgette Remington, the town Selectboard, planning commissioners and wind opponents, up broad gravel roads carved through the forest to the site of the proposed wind-measuring tower on Hawk Rock.
The crowd pressed single-file through thick second-growth maple to an indistinguishable spot on the ridge. The consultants summed up their evidence: No indications yet that the single acre to be cleared for the tower was a winter deeryard, or had been used in recent winters by moose, or contained any rare natural community of plants. The falcon nest was 700 feet away and down a cliff face.
In short, they had found nothing to suggest the met tower would have an adverse impact on the ridgeline environment as long as visits to the tower were limited in the spring when falcons nest and fall when bears feed on beechnuts.
Now, in the gym, the company officials listened. They heard their potential turbine project compared to the atom bomb, to a “malignant tumor” requiring removal by PSB surgeons, to the smallpox introduced by European settlers that “wiped out the Indians.”
They were accused of greed, misinformation and – perhaps the greatest sin in a small town – lack of neighborly consideration.
Later, CEO Jack Kenworthy would say he takes seriously the concerns he heard expressed, but he would add, “There was an organized effort to show opposition. We hear another side of the coin as we host local barbecues and in conversation around town. “
Watching from the wings
Selectboard Chairman Mike Channon stood watching from the darkness just outside the door. He did not offer his own views.
But 36 hours later, he reflected on what he had heard. He understands the law, he said, and the evidence and arguments Eolian has put forward to justify development on Hawk Rock. He was glad that Remington, the hearing officer who will recommend a decision to the full board, visited the site herself.
“My only hope is that going up on the mountain, she must know – in her heart – that met towers don’t belong up there,” he said.
Biting flies buzzed in through the open doors. People swatted at them with rolled up copies of a six-page handout prepared by Volz and headlined, “Application of Seneca Mountain Wind LLC for authority pursuant to 30 V.S.A. 246 and 248 to install four temporary meteorological stations.”
Almost no one spoke about the statute known as 30 V.S.A. 246. Few people had much to say about four temporary meteorological stations.
What they wanted was to talk about 400-foot-tall wind machines – but not about the decibels of noise or the alleged effect of wind turbines on human health or property values, the usual stuff of opposition to turbines.
Instead, many speakers sketched a picture of their lives, as if their personal stories could convince the board to shield those lives from upheaval.
Nate Rindelhardt followed Alfred Cross Jr. to the microphone.
“Fifteen years ago I bought 300 acres of land as far off the beaten path as I could buy. I built a small cabin in the midst of it where the only thing you hear is the wind and the songbirds, sometimes a drumming partridge,” he said. “I hope to retire some day by getting by on a two-acre garden and home-raised hog meat.”
Ben Bangs told Volz he grew up on a Newark farm, graduated from Bowdoin College and returned to the town. He talked about seeing bears “all the time” and watching peregrine falcons from Hawk Rock fly over his house.
Jim Newell described his 39 years in Newark, 35 of them living off the electric grid. Dave Holden began by saying he only moved to town two weeks ago because “I looked for a place where I could live close to nature.” Nationally known artist Claire Van Vliet said she has been a full-time resident since 1966, “living beside Packer Mountain Cemetery at an elevation of 1,700 feet.
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