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Wind on the ballot

The near-tie in the Progressive Party’s primary for governor would be a mere footnote amid the primary election results except for what it reveals about the issue of wind power in Vermont.

Initially, Secretary of State Jim Condos had declared Martha Abbott the winner of the primary, but after a second look at some counting inaccuracies, it appeared the result was Abbott, 371, and Annette Smith, 370.

Smith, the environmental activist from Danby, was a late entry as a write-in candidate, thrust into the election because of her opposition to ridgeline wind power development. Abbott was running to carry the Progressive banner, and earlier in the week she had been certified as the winner. As winner she planned to withdraw from the race and to support Gov. Peter Shumlin.

But she may not be the winner after all. After some ballot-counting irregularities were discovered, the final tally narrowed to a one-vote margin, which is within the margin allowing for Smith to demand a recount.

Shumlin has not encountered serious opposition from within the ranks of Democrats and Progressives, except on the issue of wind power, and the Smith write-in candidacy reflects the unhappiness of wind opponents.

The Lowell Mountain project by Green Mountain Power has been the catalyst for the schism within the minuscule ranks of Progressive Party voters, but unhappiness over wind goes far beyond the Progressives.

Shumlin has consistently said that he would not support a wind project that did not have the support of local residents, and in Lowell residents voted in favor of the GMP project. But opposition has been vociferous in nearby towns, such as Craftsbury and Albany, leading to protests and civil disobedience at the construction site where 20 giant wind towers are being placed on the mountaintop.

Opponents note that Lowell residents have benefited from payments by GMP and by the prospect of new tax revenues, but that the impact of the project extends far beyond Lowell. Thus, they believe that Shumlin’s bow to the idea of local control is on the disingenuous side.

As developers propose new wind projects, Shumlin’s allegiance to local control will be tested. The project proposed by Reunion Power for the Grandpa’s Knob ridge in Pittsford, Hubbardton, West Rutland and Castleton has provoked nearly unanimous local opposition. All four select boards have opposed the project, and residents are moving to organize townwide votes.

It is the physical damage to pristine mountain landscapes that is most offensive to local residents. And as residents become increasingly aware of the scale of large-scale wind, opposition has become fiercer. Thus residents of Windham are marshalling their forces in opposition to a project there.

Green Mountain Power executives make the case that sources such as wind and solar power are valuable because after the cost of installation is taken care of, the cost of the power produced is free. Further, Shumlin has long emphasized the importance of addressing the problem of climate change and of promoting the development of green technology. The question of wind power pits lovers of specific cherished pieces of land against environmentalists eager to further the development of sustainable energy.

If local residents remain stout in opposition, despite the financial blandishments of developers, they may settle the question. Though approval of projects rests with the state Public Service Board, the board’s chairwoman, Elizabeth Miller, has said the board takes seriously the degree of local opposition.

Former Gov. James Douglas opposed ridgeline development because he thought it was inappropriate for the Vermont environment and Vermonters’ environmental sensibility. The appearance of Annette Smith in the Progressive primary and the growing opposition to wind may show that, despite the imperatives of climate change, Douglas had a keen understanding of the way Vermonters think about their mountains.