MONTPELIER – The push to reform the process of siting wind projects might have received a boost here during a recent technical hearing before the Public Service Board (PSB).
One of the present issues before reformers is how to level the playing field.
What that issue boils down to is money. Money a town needs to pay the lawyers and experts to represent its interest before the PSB.Newark has fought against a wind project on its ridgeline since day one. Last Wednesday, January 23, its fight went from the town hall to a hearing room in Montpelier over Seneca Mountain Wind’s petition to erect four test towers in three towns: one each in Ferdinand and Newark and two in Brighton.
The money issue came up early in the hearing last Wednesday when John Soininen, one of the developers of Seneca Mountain Wind took the stand.
And it came up unexpectedly when the attorney for the town of Newark, Brooke Dingledine, asked why Seneca Wind had gone through its attorneys to get a list of the donors who had contributed to the town’s defense fund.
Mr. Soininen said the list was a public document and that the company had a right to see it.
Ms. Dingledine suggested the request was made to intimidate other residents from making donations – a suggestion that Mr. Soininen vigorously denied.
The purpose was strategic, he said, as the company did not want “to communicate with people who are very clearly acting in an adversarial manner toward us.”
The Newark donor list is being kept at the town clerk’s office and along with the names it shows how much each person has contributed.
Last Thursday, the day after the PSB hearing concluded, the list indicated that 44 people had donated $18,195.
The donations ranged from $15 to $5,000 and came from both residents and non-residents. By contributing large and small amounts, Newark supporters of the defense fund appear to be following a pattern. Opposition to big wind throughout the last seven or eight years has relied heavily on grass roots funding.
“I’ve had people stop me on the streets and hand me a $20 bill,” said Steven Wright of Craftsbury who has helped to coordinate opposition to ridgeline wind.
Mr. Wright, a former commissioner of the state’s Fish and Wildlife Department, said that roughly $161,000 in donations had been collected in a losing effort to fight the wind project for Lowell Mountain.
All the money, he added, represented individual gifts and was collected among the five towns close to the project.
The most expensive fight so far appears to have been waged by the Ridge Protectors, an umbrella group that has fought wind projects at both Sheffield and at Lowell Mountain.
Paul Brouha of Sutton helped to spearhead the group, which formed to oppose Sheffield Wind roughly seven years ago. He estimated in a recent interview that the group spent over $1-million to fight each of the two projects.
What hurt most, he said, was that wind developers were receiving public money to finance their projects, including a $1-million federal grant that Senator Bernie Sanders helped to procure very early in the wind industry’s appearance in Vermont.
“We were getting beat over the head with our own tax money,” Mr. Brouha said.
One of the obstacles opponents have had to face when it came to paying fees for attorneys and experts was a lack of tax dollar support from local government.
Mr. Wright noted that neither the town governments of Albany and Craftsbury came out in opposition to the Lowell Mountain project, leaving only donors to pick up the tab.
Newark appears to be the first Kingdom town to incur sizable expenses as a result of its stand against Seneca Mountain Wind. It citizens will also be asked at the annual Town Meeting to support funding the fight as it extends into another year.
Residents will be asked to approve an appropriation of $50,000 that will appear on the warning as a separate article at the March meeting, according to selectman Chairman Mike Channon.
Still facing the town is a final bill, which will come in addition to the $50,000 or $60,000 the town has already spent on wind related issues. Among the related issues is a civil suit filed by Hawk Rock Holdings over the amended town plan the town passed in the fall.
The added expenses haven’t made for easy times for selectmen, or increased their popularity. Mr. Channon noted that only a year ago the town was looking into building a new municipal building and office for the town clerk.
“That has now been put on hold,” he said speaking in a telephone interview Tuesday.
Joining the town at the table during last week’s hearing before the board was the citizens’ group, Newark Neighbors United (NNU). But while the town showed up with two professional experts to provide testimony, NNU put on two private citizens to testify as experts that a test tower would have an adverse impact on wildlife around Hawk Rock.
One of the experts was Valerie Desmarais of West Burke who faced tough questions as an expert due to her association with NNU.
“I bawled as soon as I got off the stand, and I bawled part of the next day, too,” she said, speaking in an interview Monday.
NNU was represented at the hearing by St. Johnsbury attorney Deborah Buckman, who provided the group with her legal services for a reported bargain basement fee.
The group relies mainly on volunteers, who buy the stamps for mailings and pay other office related bills. It runs mainly on donations with no pockets deep enough to pay the going rate for experts – some who charge $160 an hour.
“We haven’t quite gotten to a bake sale,” Ms. Desmarais said, when asked about the group’s war chest.
The town’s defense fund has nothing in it for the citizens’ group, according to Kim Fried who serves on Newark’s planning commission.
An anti-wind activist, he has been openly critical of the cozy relationship he believes exists between wind developers and state agencies like the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).
As matters presently stand, Mr. Fried said there is nothing available in the way of financial assistance or expertise to help small towns deal with the prospects of a wind farm setting up shop in the backyard.
Speaking in an interview last week, he said neither insurance companies nor the Vermont League of Cities and Town have played any role.
“It’s just a huge burden on the town,” he said, “Just huge.”
Help may be coming. Recently this month ANR submitted ten recommendations to the Governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission that could help small towns like Newark prepare for a hearing before the PSB.
Submitted by ANR’s senior planner, Billy Coster, one of the recommendations calls upon the state to “provide technical support to impacted municipalities for large generation proposals.”
Another would require developers to put towns on notice of a potential project before filing any petition or leasing any land.
It’s the kind of recommendations that pleases town officials in Newark.
“It’s the exact opposite of what they are doing now,” Mr. Fried said, adding that ANR was talking with Seneca Wind before the town knew anything about the project.
In calling for the state to provide towns with experts for generating projects designed to produce 15MW or more of power, the recommendation appears to respond to many of Newark’s complaints about the shortcomings of the current process.
“Municipal intervention is only meaningful if communities have access to experts that can articulate their concern objectively and in a fashion that will hold weight with the board,”
advises the report accompanying the recommendations.
The Governor’s siting commission will also review an ANR recommendation to change the make-up of the Public Serve Board by adding someone from ANR and a regional representative. Other changes in the board composition are also being considered by the Legislature.
Introduced by Senator Robert Hartwell who chairs the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, an appointment to the three-member board would require the consent of the senate.
Recommendations to change the board’s make-up and give towns state assistance to prepare for technical hearings like the one held last Wednesday may soften some of the resentment and frustration Newark officials like Mr. Channon have been expressing toward the present state of affairs.
“Who are you fighting? The state of Vermont or the wind company?” he asked this week in an interview.
“The real enemy is not the select board or the people,” he said.
“The real enemy is the state of Vermont and the out-of-state wind companies.”
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