May 29, 2013

Northeast Kingdom: Ridge Protectors accuse wind developer of open meeting violations

Amy Ash Nixon, Staff Writer | Caledonian Record | Wednesday, May 29, 2013 |

BRIGHTON – The head of the Brighton Ridge Protectors, a citizen-led group fighting efforts to site a wind project in Brighton, Ferdinand and Newark, wants the Vermont Attorney General to rule on alleged violations of Vermont’s Open Meeting Law.

Island Pond resident Pam Arborio says the Board of Governors of the Unified Towns and Gores have committed violations of the state open meeting law in discussing possible financial terms and more with a wind developer in recent months.

Arborio also sent information in recent days to the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) about a court ruling last week involving the same developer, Eolian Renewable Energy, holding improper discussions and negotiations with the Antrim, N.H.. select board. She is hoping the PSB will consider that issue in their looming ruling on issuing Eolian a Certificate of Public Good for meteorological towers to go up in four locations in the Northeast Kingdom.

Eolian’s subsidiary for its hoped-for Northeast Kingdom wind project is called Seneca Mountain Wind.

“The N.H. ruling parallels my complaint to the VT Attorney General regarding a violation of open meeting laws by the Board of Governors of the UTG concerning a proposal by SMW/Eolian in Ferdinand,” Arborio wrote to the PSB. “The AG is presently investigating my complaint, but I believe it’s important the PSB have the most recent information available when making their decision.”

Last week, Hillsborough (N.H.) County Superior Court Judge David Garfunkel ruled that the Antrim, N.H., selectmen violated the state’s Right-to-Know law in secret meetings with the developer in 2011 and 2012. The selectmen and Eolian were meeting to discuss payment in lieu of taxes for a 10-turbine wind project, which recently failed to obtain a permit from the New Hampshire Site Evaluation Committee.

According to a news release on the court ruling over the improper selectmen’s meetings in Antrim, NH, the citizens’ group there stated, “Five Antrim residents, frustrated that negotiations with Antrim Wind Energy were not being held in public as required by NH Right-to-Know statutes, filed a lawsuit in 2012 after selectmen signed a PILOT and alternative PILOT agreement.” Their case was heard April 10. Judge Garfunkel’s order upheld the plaintiffs’ case, and also voided the PILOT agreements.

Garfunkel stated in his decision, “The court grants the petitioners’ request to void the PILOT (payment in lieu of taxes) Agreement…the Board conducted numerous noticed and unnoticed, non-public meetings while negotiating the PILOT Agreement. These meetings contravened the fundamental purpose of the Right-to-Know law’s goal of transparent and open government.”

Also last week, the Senior Assistant Attorney General for the State of New Hampshire, rejected the Town of Antrim’s request for a re-hearing of a rejection by the state’s Site Evaluation Committee to allow a wind project in Antrim, stating, in part, “The Town in essence suggests that the Committee must treat all tall structures on ridgelines the same: approve one, approve them all. This sort of short-cut by eliminating fact specific context is not what the Committee can reasonably do in exercising its discretion.

Arborio is hoping the Antrim, N.H. ruling will help her complaint to the AGs office over a March meeting she questions between the UTG’s Board of Governors and Eolian.

In mid-March, Arborio sent a complaint to the Vermont AG’s office, alleging that the UTG’s Board of Governors had violated the Vermont Open Meeting Law.

After hitting intense resistance and even re-written town plans in Brighton and Newark that are not welcoming to industrial wind, the developers have been focusing in recent months on Ferdinand, and had several meetings with the UTG’s Board of Governors. They have not said for the record they are withdrawing from their original plan to develop in all three towns. Before the UTG Board, the developers have talked about a PILOT and even cash payments directly to individual property owners on the record at public meetings.

In her March 15 complaint regarding the UTG Board’s dealings with Eolian, Arborio wrote, “I have seen discussion of business which should have been held during a warned meeting. Having prior knowledge of a proposal of enormous importance to their constituents, they failed to include it as part of the agenda,” she wrote.

“I believe you will find, after listening to the audio recordings, proof of the desire to hold off-the-record discussions pertaining to an industrial wind turbine proposal by SMW/Eolian/Nordex (a turbine manufacturer and co-developer in the SMW project),” Arborio wrote the AG in her complaint. She said she believes there are more violations, too, and noted that the Board of Governors has stopped taping their meetings now, but she has taped them herself.

The Vermont AG’s office on March 22 responded and wrote to the UTG’s Town Supervisor Gina Vigneault informing her of the complaint over Open Meeting Law violations. The letter offered the Board the chance to respond and sought copies of warnings, agendas and minutes for all UTG meetings from August 2012 through March 2013 as part of its investigation into Arborio’s complaint.

The UTG’s attorney, Dan McCabe, wrote the AG’s office and said the requested materials would be sent. He said he did not want to incur legal fees exceeding the maximum fine of $500, and asked to reserve his response until after your office finds deficiencies, if any, so the response can be more specific and directed.”

The PSB has received a lengthy Proposal for Decision from the hearing officer in the docket for the proposed meteorological towers, recommending they be allowed.

A hearing is set for today in Montpelier on the Certificate of Public Good for Eolian/SMW at which oral arguments will be taken on the application of SMW to install four temporary meteorological stations, two in Brighton, and one in Ferdinand and one in Newark. The hearing is at 2 p.m. in the Public Service Board’s Hearing Room, third floor, People’s United Bank Building, 112 State St., Montpelier.

An email seeking comment on the Antrim court ruling over improper meetings with selectmen there was not responded to Tuesday by Eolian representatives.

Of today’s scheduled hearing, John Soininen, vice president of developing for Eolian/SWM, stated in an email, “We look forward to a timely final order from the Board on this matter and then continuing to work towards a defined project plan for a wind farm that can bring substantial clean energy and economic development benefit to Vermonters.”

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