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In Newark, a ringing vote against ridgeline wind

NEWARK – Selectboard member Tommie Rodger upended the wooden ballot box, and torn bits of paper cascaded onto the counting table.

On half sheets torn from notebooks, on Post-it notes, on little corners of white paper ripped from the town report, voter after voter had scrawled “Yes” or “YES!” – or, in one case, “Yes, yes.”

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By a vote of 88-12, residents of this Northeast Kingdom hill town voted overwhelmingly Tuesday to raise the tax rate by about a nickel to defend their community’s opposition to placing commercial wind turbines on a local ridgeline.

They had come along snowy roads to their annual town meeting, a straight-from-Norman-Rockwell gathering.

From folding chairs in the Newark Street School gymnasium, residents asked hours of probing questions of town officials, but they voted with a single voice to endorse higher town and school budgets, to re-elect every incumbent and to fill a Selectboard vacancy with an outspoken opponent of ridgeline wind turbines.

And they had lunch, a justly famous Town Meeting Day potluck of chicken soup, chili, quiche, American chop suey, shepherd’s pie, macaroni salad, spicy peanut noodles and Bev Davis’s baked beans made with maple syrup and soldier beans she grew herself.

Some residents grinned knowingly when Rep. Bill Johnson, R-Canaan, came through the door five minutes before lunch was served. Johnson, who represents 14 towns and gores in the sparsely settled northeast corner of Vermont, acknowledged with a grin that he times his visit to the Newark meeting with the dinner bell.

The meeting had opened at 10 a.m. with a plea for civility from Moderator Jim Newell, a 17-year veteran of the post.

“Caring for others in the community is of far greater importance than any differences we have,” Newell told the voters.

His admonition proved unnecessary. A number of speakers went out of their way, for example, to apologize to Town Clerk Joan Bicknell for their opposition to a proposal to build her a new office for $250,000.

“I greatly appreciate the work of the town clerk,” Planning Commissioner Luke O’Brien began, “but I do feel this proposal is premature.”

He and others argued the town needs a more comprehensive plan to deal not just with a too-small Town Clerk’s Office but with an inadequate town garage and fire department.

Even on this apparently unrelated issue, opposition to wind development played a role.

“Especially when we’re facing huge bills for fighting wind towers, this isn’t the time,” Gail Ruggles said in arguing against a new clerk’s office.

The issue of wind turbines has consumed Newark since the day after town meeting 2012, when wind developer Eolian Renewable Energy of Portsmouth, N.H., revealed its interest in the Hawk Rock ridgeline on the east side of town.

Eolian is seeking Public Service Board approval to erect wind measuring towers there, with an eye toward erecting a commercial wind project in Newark, Brighton and Ferdinand.

In response, the town voted last fall to amend the town plan to make clear that ridgeline wind development is inappropriate for Newark.

Soon after, Hawk Rock Holdings, the ridgeline landowner who has leased the wind project site to Eolian, sued Newark to overturn the town plan.

Legal bills for the defense, and for making the town’s case to the Public Service Board, are mounting – more than $50,000 so far. A group of residents petitioned the Selectboard to ask voters to establish a legal defense fund and to put an additional amount “not to exceed $50,000” in it.

There was dead silence as Planning Commission Chairman Kim Fried urged approval.

“We have a choice,” he said. “We can walk away, or we can stand up for what we believe in.”

Mary Ann Riggie, a resident and principal of the school, said nothing less than Newark’s self-determination was at stake.

“To me, this is not a pro-wind or anti-wind issue,” she said. “We followed the rule of law in making a very difficult decision about our town plan, and now we are being told we don’t have the power to do that.

“It is a big, big challenge to our democracy,” she concluded.

Fried and Riggie appeared convincing. Voters first amended the proposal to remove the words that limited spending to $50,000.

“If it is $50,000, if it is $100,000, if it is $150,000, it is worth it,” resident Jan Clausing told the meeting.

Even ardent wind opponents were taken aback by the size of the yes vote.

“I saw people who were definitely pro-wind who softened their positions. Hawk Rock Holdings essentially is telling us we can’t govern ourselves, and people are angry about that,” resident Noreen Hession said outside the meeting.

“The number reflects people thinking: ‘How dare you sue us after we used a legal process to amend our town plan?’” she said.