MONTPELIER – Small town officials and citizens gave legislators an earful, at a public hearing Thursday, January 31, about why the permitting process for siting wind projects is not working for them.
Mary Boyer, chairman of the Windham Selectmen, said the Public Service Board (PSB) granted developers a certificate of public good (CPG) to erect test towers despite a town plan that excluded industrial wind turbines that had the support of the Department of Public Service.
According to her testimony, the PSB found that the law did allow them to decide otherwise, “regardless of the town plan.”
Lisa Garcia, an appraiser in West Rutland, told members of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources and Energy that when it comes to putting wind turbines on ridgelines, the deck is stacked against local government.
“There is a system in place in our state government which favors developers of energy projects, and there is a powerful political will to support large scale renewables at any cost and without adequate scrutiny.”
Ms. Garcia said she considered herself an environmentalist, that she had taught for Massachusetts Audubon, and returned to Vermont in 2001 to raise her family “in a rural lifestyle.”
She said she lives in one of the four host towns to the Grandpa’s Knob Project. The towns have all come out against the project, but given the Section 248 process of the PSB she doesn’t believe they have a “snowball’s chance in hell of winning.”
Kim Fried, a member of Newark’s planning commission, testified that the permit process was a “negative experience” for his town in its fight to prevent Seneca Wind from erecting a test tower on Hawk Rock. He said he supports a proposed wind moratorium bill’s intent to open up the process and strengthen local participation.
“You can’t dismiss a town plan,” he said. “It represents decades of work by citizens’ groups.”
More than a dozen citizens testified at the hearing in support of the proposed three-year moratorium on industrial wind projects on ridgelines. Spearheaded by Senator Joe Benning of Lyndon, the bill would also put Act 250 in charge of the siting process.
While testimony was going on inside the hearing room, a large crowd gathered upstairs in the State House for a press conference in support of the moratorium.
Luke Snelling of Energize Vermont addressed the crowd as if he were speaking to a rally when he called for a more sensible way to deal with global warming than destroying mountaintops.
Before the Senate committee, Brighton Administrative Assistant Joel Cope, Shirley Nelson of Lowell, and Sheffield resident Luann Therrien were among several people from the Northeast Kingdom who testified last week.
Ms. Therrien said that living next to a ridgeline with 16 wind turbines has created health problems for her and her family and left them feeling helpless and depressed.
“We are getting so tired of feeling like hell every day,” said Ms. Therrien, who had not opposed the project until it was up and running. “We feel as bad when we get up as when we go to bed.”
She compared the noise of the turbines to a jet plane, but said few people understand how the noise affects someone who has to put up with it day in and day out.
“One person had the nerve to say they visited a project and the noise was no worse than their dishwasher,” she said. “Well, I guarantee if your dishwasher was to run day and night you’d shut it off before five days were done.”
Ms. Nelson, who lives on the family farm with her husband, Don, testified that their home is about 4,500 feet from the turbines on Lowell Mountain.
Like Ms. Therrien, she said that noise from the turbines had different effects on different people.
On Thanksgiving Day, she said, the noise caused her daughter to leave the house, left others with migraine headaches, and ringing in the ears, while at the same time having no effect on others.
“We had to close an open window to lower the sound effect,” she said.
She said she has measured noise decibels inside the house that have exceeded the 45 decibels allowed by the PSB – a level she contended is too high.
“I often experience headaches, ringing in my ears and a tightness like a band around my head,” she testified. “When the noise goes on and on I find myself becoming irritable, like you would with a faucet dripping.”
While a moratorium would freeze wind development for a specified time, some opponents want to eliminate ridgeline wind entirely as a source of renewable power. Arguments that the benefits of industrial wind outweigh the costs have gained little traction among those who see Vermont’s natural beauty as its ticket to prosperity.
Economically, the possibility of sticking turbines on overlooking ridgelines would come like a slap in the town of Brighton’s face, according to Mr. Cope.
“Brighton has invested heavily in the tourist economy based on advice from the state,” he said.
But turbines on the ridgeline would sink that investment, he warned. “You do not see pictures of wind turbines on any mountain ridges displayed prominently on the website of Vermont’s Tourism and Recreation Department.”
Like other witnesses, Mr. Cope argued that a moratorium is needed to determine if the benefits of industrial wind really outweigh the costs, as currently believed by the Shumlin administration.
He agreed that the crisis in climate warming must be addressed, but argued that the push to get big wind turbines up and running is supported by well intended people who had gotten sideways with their commitment to the environment.
“I never thought it would be the environmentalists who paved paradise,” said Mr. Cope, as he passed around a framed photograph showing the mountains to the east of Island Pond that would be impacted by a proposed wind project.
Senator Robert Hartwell of Bennington County, who chairs the committee and is a co-sponsor of the moratorium, wondered why the state would support a ridgeline development that borders the former Champion lands.
“It’s so close to land that the state has spent a lot of money on to protect and conserve,” he said.
The first wind project to be proposed for Essex County was aired in 2005 and was called a demonstration project to erect four turbines on East Mountain in East Haven.
A PSB hearing officer denied a CPG for that project because of its close proximity to the protected Champion lands.
The full three-member board overturned that ruling, but denied a CPG because the developer refused to do a bird and bat study of the area.
Testimony on the Senate bill lasted all morning, and the committee is expected to hear from more witnesses in the weeks ahead.
Representative Higley’s wind bill
A House member from Lowell is seeking cosponsors to introduce a bill that would impose a similar three-year moratorium on wind development.
“It is not a kill wind bill,” said the third-term Representative Mark Higley, a Republican who continues to support the wind project on Lowell Mountain.
Rather, he see the moratorium as an opportunity for the state to answer questions that keep dogging wind projects, such as the impact it is having on people’s health and the environment.
“If the state is going to promote wind, it ought to get studies out for the people affected by it,” he said in an interview last week. “That’s where I’m coming from.”
As of last Thursday he had 30 co-signers, including all House members representing Orleans County. Once the bill is introduced it is likely to face hard sledding in the House, where there is less momentum for a moratorium than in the Senate, where supporters believe they have enough votes to pass their bill.
House Speaker Shap Smith opposes a moratorium, as does Montpelier Representative Tony Klein, who chairs the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy.
Representative Higley, however, said Thursday he hopes there would be enough support to convince Mr. Klein to take testimony on it in his committee.
While the two bills are similar in calling for a three-year moratorium, Mr. Higley said his proposal differs from the Senate’s. It would not put a freeze on installing test tower on ridgelines to measure wind speeds, nor would it spell out setbacks, or how close wind turbines can be sited to residential communities.
As proposed by the House bill, a report carrying recommendations would be due at the end of the moratorium’s second year.
Representative Higley said his bill would also provide for an analysis of how wind projects affect property values.
Also in the House, Representative Bill Johnson of Canaan has introduced a bill that would require state agencies to notify regional planning commissions and municipalities whenever wind developers initially express interest in a project site.
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