GRAFTON – In a Feb. 2 meeting organized by the Selectboard to discuss development of a potential commercial wind farm project, townspeople learned that it will take from three to seven years to develop the site fully and to construct between 10 and 30 wind turbines on the ridge.
But all that would depend on what developers find from meteorological testing towers proposed for the Stiles Brook Project.
Iberdrola ultimately hopes that 5,000 acres owned by Meadowsend Timber LLC (MTL), a New Hampshire forestry company, will be the site of the turbines.
Between 50 and 60 Grafton residents were greeted at the entrance to the school parking lot by Windham County Sheriff’s Department Capt. Robert Lakin, who said he had “been asked by the Selectboard to be present.”
Inside, facilitator and Selectboard Chair Allan Sands began the meeting, saying he hoped there would be “a respectful exchange of information,” but he said that Lakin would be called on to remove anyone who got out of hand.
“It’s easier to put the lid on the pot [before] than after it boils over,” he said.
“We were told early on that this will be a very contentious topic and discussion will be very divisive,” Sands said, telling town residents that the meeting was in response to accusations that the board had been “negligent in sharing information.”
The Selectboard consequently invited Meadowsend and Iberdrola to present their motivations and reasoning behind the process and be available to answer questions.
Iberdrola’s permit application to the Vermont Public Service board to erect meteorological towers (METs) on the site was approved in December.
The towers will go up “over the next few weeks,” according to Jenny Briot, Iberdrola Renewables Senior Business Developer. They will be thin poles, 197 feet tall, supported by guy wires that can be transported “in a pickup truck.”
Sands outlined the timeline, starting from May 2012, when MTL and Iberdrola attended a meeting “as a courtesy” to give their 45-day notice of intent to file for a permit to erect METs on MTL land.
Rejection of petition
Sands brought residents up through the Jan. 24 submission of a petition signed by 40 Grafton residents and submitted by Friends of Grafton’s Heritage founder Liisa Kissel, requesting that the question, “Shall the town prohibit large-scale industrial wind installations in Grafton,” be added as an article for the upcoming Annual Town Meeting.
Sands explained to residents why the board rejected the petition.
“The Selectboard was informed by the town attorney and by [Vermont League of Cities and Towns’] legal counsel that the article as written, if approved, would ask the town to do something they do not have jurisdiction to do.”
Sands explained, “Vermont is a Dillon [rule] state.”
This means that “municipal authority to act is controlled by the state,” and “that the town and its voters or Selectboard have no authority beyond that which is given by statute.”
The town plan of Windham, where two of the three METs are proposed, clearly prohibits commercial wind projects “except MET towers,” Sands said.
Early on during the comment period, Windham raised objections to the Public Service Board based on their town plan.
But Sands told the audience that the Dillon Rule would “make that part of Windham’s town plan illegal.”
During the comment period last fall, both Gov. Peter Shumlin and the Vermont Department of Public Service urged the PSB to consider municipal vision and planning intents, including town plans.
The board found that since METs were excluded in the town plan specifically, the MET towers would not be in conflict.
Kissel, whose property adjoins MTL property and the co-author of the petition, said this decision raised concerns “about the democratic process in view of the recent rejection of a citizens’ petition.”
Sands explained the board had come up with wording for for the Grafton Town Meeting warning instead, which would ask the voters, “Shall the Selectboard continue conversations with Meadowsend Timber and their developer, Atlantic Wind [Iberdrola], for the purpose of collecting information to share with the voters of Grafton?”
But, Sands told Grafton residents, “In the end, it is the PSB who will decide” whether to issue a Certificate of Public Good for the Stiles Brook Project.
The meeting was then turned over to MTL and Iberdrola, who were given two hours to present. MTL gave a history of economic reasons that led up to considering wind development on their land, and their corporate family history as foresters in Vermont, New Hampshire and Maine.
MTL is the third-largest owner of Vermont land, with around 30,000 acres.
Iberdrola said that two company wind farms already are running in Vermont: Searsburg Wind, which opened in 1997, and Sheffield, which began operation last year.
The firm also has three other projects in various stages of development in the state – Kingdom County Wind, Deerfield Wind, and Georgia Mountain Community Wind.
Representatives from Iberdrola explained the process of a developing a wind farm in Grafton, if a planned one-to-three-year-long MET assessment shows that the site is suitable for a wind farm.
“Cost and benefit” will be studied thoroughly throughout the whole process. She said Iberdrola could decide anytime, based on the firm’s studies, that the cost is greater than the benefit and pull out of the project.
In response to whether the results of their testing and assessments would be available for the public to review, Briot said while specific results and data gathered would not be available to the public, summaries will be available for the public on the PSB site.
She characterized the company’s process as “transparent with continued open communication” throughout.
MTL Director Jamey French repeatedly said that he “hoped this will continue to be a collaborative process” with ongoing dialogue, “such as is happening here.”
Following the presentation, residents asked about “infrasound” and resulting health issues, lowered property values, noise, the role of a town plan in Iberdrola and MTL’s considerations, as well as whether MTL and Iberdrola were accessing government subsidies.
Acoustical consultants will assess the topography of the area around the proposed wind farm and create a model with projected sound probabilities. She noted that the company must comply with state restrictions on exterior and interior sound levels.
“We would hire an acoustical engineer who is expert in modeling and predicting sound from a wind farm or factory,” Briot responded.
Such a company “would develop a map of sound contours of the surrounding areas, and we could meet with surrounding residents,” she said, noting that results would be publicly available on the PSB website.
While all residents maintained decorum, some were more persistent than others.
Resident Adam Howard stood and asked MTL and Iberdrola bluntly, “How much would you take to just go away?”
French replied that an offer for the assessed fair market value of the property might merit consideration.
Briot said that each tower would use about an acre of land. French reminded the audience that a power line already runs through the MTL property “using 125 acres.”
Decommissioning of the site “years down the road” would be funded through with money that the state would hold in escrow for that purpose, as required by state law.
Another resident asked if Iberdrola if they were “having any PR problems and did they have any lawsuits pending?”
Paul Copelman, communications manager for Iberdrola, responded to one resident’s question if the company had any public relations or lawsuits pending.
“Yes,” he said. “We don’t expect every person in every community like our wind power project. We take project impact very seriously.”
He said that Iberdrola is facing a lawsuit in upstate New York. “A small number of people have filed complaints.”
The nine-member Iberdrola team and five member MTL team did their best to answer residents questions and concerns, but it was clear that it is too early in the process to do more than define what the questions were, and what the process would like.
“Unfortunately, Iberdrola did not provide information about the actual wind installations, and only discussed the test towers and the application processes,” Kissel said after the meeting.
Saying that the project “represents the most far-reaching, permanent change to the region in modern times,” Kissel called it “a complex issue that requires the full attention of townspeople, the Selectboard, and the Planning Commission.”
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