GEORGIA – For the first nine months that the Georgia Mountain wind turbines whirred from the mountaintop across the road from their home, Melodie and Scott McLane could find few people to acknowledge that the sound was bothersome.
Acknowledgment came this month in a letter from town officials. They agreed with the McLanes that noise from the four turbines was a detriment and reduced the value of their home by 12 percent.
Property values are the new front line in the war over wind turbines in Vermont. And town listers are the new arbiters of just how much impact commercial wind turbines are having on neighbors.
From Georgia to Lowell to Sutton, local town officials are being asked to put a dollar value to the impact that noise, flickering shadows and altered views of recently installed wind projects is having.
“This is new territory for us,” said Sutton lister Mary Gray, who said she has heard that town residents near the Sheffield wind project plan to challenge their assessments in the spring.
The strategy is divisive.
Town officials who lower property assessments because of wind projects are misguided, said Gabrielle Stebbins, executive director of Renewable Energy Vermont, an industry advocacy group.
“It would be wiser if they looked at data. If there’s no data really verifying what they’re doing, ultimately they’re just reducing their operating revenue,” she said. “I think in five to 10 years, the data will show it’s not based in fact.”
Stebbins pointed to national studies that find wind projects elsewhere have had no discernible effect on real estate prices. Critics of wind power argue those studies take in too broad an area, whereas the real impact on property values is closer to the towers.
Regardless, real-life real estate data have yet to be generated around Vermont’s three largest wind projects – in Georgia, Lowell and Sheffield – both because the projects are too new, and because the number of properties involved were too few to generate many sales. Some argue that the lack of sales also is an indication that the turbines are having an impact.
Appraisers, however, warn that data are necessary to make valid adjustments to property values.
Bill Hinman, a professional property appraiser who is Georgia’s town assessor, rejected requests by the McLanes and another couple on their road to lower assessments, because there were no comparable real estate sales to judge whether the value of the property had changed, and if so, by how much. He’s bound by state law to base his decisions on market evidence, he said.
“We do not have any direct evidence,” Hinman said. “As an assessor, I would never be able to change an assessment unless I had direct evidence.”
The McLanes appealed Hinman’s decision to the Georgia Board of Civil Authority, made up of publicly elected town officials who are not bound by the same rules as assessors. A six-member panel agreed that the noise from the four turbines was a detriment. The board lowered the McLanes’ assessment from $409,900 to $360,712.
“It was a really difficult decision,” said Don Vickers, chairman of the Board of Civil Authority.
The six board members – three Democrats and three Republicans – visited the McLanes’ house as many as five times to experience life near the turbines, Vickers said. They each came away persuaded that the sound of the turbines hurt the value of the property, he said.
The real debate, he said, came in figuring how much the turbines hurt. The panel looked at property assessments that were adjusted in Williston near Burlington International Airport and tried to make comparisons, he said. Those properties were reduced up to 15 percent, he said. Although airplanes are louder than the turbines, they also pass quickly and don’t fly all night, and people living near them expect some noise, Vickers said.
The board settled on a 12 percent reduction for the McLanes and an 8 percent reduction for their neighbors, Andrew Thompson and Erica Berl, who can hear the turbines but have no direct view, Vickers said.
“I like wind power, but I think we realized any time you put a commercial development nearby, there should be some compensation,” Vickers said. “This is a property on 15 acres on a dirt road with a beautiful mountain view. You don’t expect to have a commercial installation.”
Hinman disagreed with the board’s decision, but he said the 12 and 8 percent reductions were not substantial enough for him to appeal them to the state Board of Appraisers. If the local board had made a 40 percent reduction, as the McLanes had sought, he might have, he said.
The McLanes, who have lived on Georgia Mountain Road for 25 years and raised four sons there, cited several factors for seeking a reduction: their altered view, the flickering shadow effect of the turbines and the noise.
Vickers said the board decided that virtually the whole town was affected by the site of the turbines, that the flickering was difficult to pin down, but that the sound uniquely affected homeowners closer to the turbines.
The McLanes were satisfied with a 12 percent reduction. “We felt almost fortunate that we got anything, because nobody has ever acknowledged anything,” Melodie McLane said. “The validation is valuable to us.”
The McLanes, who have no desire to move, will pay about $700 less a year in taxes, she said, but the real value was an official recognition that sitting on their porch was less appealing, and sleeping with the windows open was more difficult when the turbines were rumbling. They aren’t loud all the time, McLane said, but when a southwest wind is blowing, the turbines sound like an airplane going overhead that never passes.
“We live in the country so we wouldn’t have noise from an industrial plant. That’s been taken away from us on some days,” McLane said. “This has turned us into people we’re really not. We’re not complainers.”
Martha Staskus, manager for the Georgia Mountain Community Wind project, said the project has been well-received overall and has operated within the state-required 45-decibel sound limit. Of the town’s decision to lower assessments, she said, “What the town does is the town’s business.”
Across the road from the McLanes at Reggie Johnson’s house, the Georgia Mountain turbines are closer and louder. He said he, too, plans to challenge his assessment next spring.
“Twelve percent is nothing compared with the hell you put up with,” Johnson said. “Maybe other communities are going to be more careful.”
Across the state in Sutton, Luis Guzman, the film and television actor, said he is considering challenging the assessment on his house because of its proximity to the 16-turbine Sheffield wind project that started operating in 2011.
He said he has been trying to sell the house for four years without success, lowering the price from $1.6 million to $750,000 for his 8,000-square-foot house on 337 acres, with greenhouse, pond and pool. He said he’s fired four real estate agents.
“It’s unfortunate we are casualties of wind turbines,” Guzman said of his and other neighbors’ attempts to sell their houses.
Nearby, Patricia and Linman Gee also have been trying to sell a high-end home near the turbines in Sheffield, so they can move closer to their grandchildren. Patricia Gee said the turbines, which they can see only from their yard and but do not hear, likely are a factor, but so are the economy and the limited pool of buyers for high-end homes in the Northeast Kingdom.
Mary Gray, the Sutton lister who is bracing for requests from homeowners in the spring for reductions in their assessments, said she knows it might be difficult to gauge the impact. Gray noted the deep division among those who like wind turbines and those who don’t.
“A lot of the interpretation is in the eye of the beholder,” she said. “It’s very difficult to try and get the emotions out of it and come down to basic facts.”
William St. Pierre, a lister in neighboring Sheffield, said he anticipates no challenges to property assessments there.
Regardless of the town, there are differences of opinion about whether challenging an assessment is the way to go.
Sheffield homeowners LuAnn and Steve Therrien, who say they have become ill from the noise of the turbines and are desperate to move, said they and other owners have been warned against challenging their assessments. They think project developer First Wind should buy them out, and if they were to lower their property value, they would receive less, Steve Therrien noted.
In Barton, where the Sheffield turbines are within view for some residents, assessments were reduced by 10 percent because of the turbines last year during a town-wide reassessment, said Jim Greenwood, economic developer with the Northeastern Vermont Development Association and a former Selectboard member. The impact of the turbines on the region, including on real estate values, also is the topic of a study his organization is doing, he said, as another project is proposed for the towns of Brighton and Ferdinand.
In Lowell, lister Mark Higley said his town is doing a town-wide property reassessment required by the state for reasons unrelated to the 21-turbine Lowell wind project that started operating in 2012. The impact of the turbines on property values is likely to be taken into consideration, Higley said, based on complaints from some property owners.
“We are considering some depreciated value for property close to the wind turbines,” Higley said, though he warned that it’s not guaranteed. “My inclination is it’s not going to be extreme.”
Higley said the town is hoping that during the next six to eight months, there will be real estate sales to guide the decision. “I don’t think it’s going to be all based on sales, because I don’t think we’re going to have sales to go on,” he said.
Whether the turbines are driving buyers away entirely might be difficult to prove.
Nick Maclure, a real estate agent with Century 21 Farm and Forest in Derby, said he’s seen a “mixed bag” of reaction to the turbines from buyers.
“We definitely have some buyers come in and say, ‘By no means do we want to see or hear them,’” he said. “Others like seeing them, but it’s not generally a selling feature. They’re not going to pay more to be near them.”
Don Turner, a real estate agent in Milton, said he has seen no evidence that buyers are scared off by the Georgia Mountain turbines. One buyer went ahead with a purchase just before the turbines were built, knowing they were coming, he said.
Turner said he was surprised by the Georgia decision to reduce assessment on two properties without evidence from sale prices.
“I don’t know how you come up with that arbitrary number,” he said. “I’m a little concerned about what we’re going to see going forward. Is there going to be a standard?”
Studies near and far
Several studies conducted nationally conclude that wind projects have impact on neighboring real estate values, using real estate sale prices in the surrounding areas.
One done last year in Lempster, N.H., of a project that went online in 2008 stated: “This study has found no evidence that the project has had a consistent, statistically significant impact on property values within the Lempster region.”
The study allowed, however, that it “does not exclude the possibility of isolated cases of property value impacts attributable to the Lempster Wind Power Project.”
Vermont’s first commercial wind project, 11 turbines that went online in Searsburg in 1997, also showed no negative impact on real estate values, a 2003 study concluded. “Monthly average sales prices grew faster in the view shed than in the comparable area, indicating that there is no significant evidence that the presence of the wind farms had a negative effect on residential property values,” the report stated.
Martha Staskus, the Georgia wind project manager, pointed to the studies as evidence that “wind projects are not creating a negative impact on property.”
Michael McCann, a real estate appraiser in Illinois, has read the reports and researched the issue for nearly a decade. He said the studies typically take in too broad an area, are funded by the industry or are done by non-appraisers. A property 3 or 5 miles from turbines is affected much less than a property next to a turbine, he said.
He said he found in a recent Illinois project that properties within 1,500 to 3,500 feet of projects lose an average of 26 percent of their value.
“There’s enough market evidence out there to support the contention that homes within 2 miles of industrial turbines are going to suffer anywhere between 25 and 40 percent,” he said.
McCann recommends that when wind projects are proposed, communities insist on a property value guarantee. If a property doesn’t sell for a determined fair market value, the developer makes up the difference.
Staskus said she sees that as an unlikely trend.
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