Because it is a survey and not an official election, Eolian’s Seneca Mountain Wind subsidiary seems to be committing no crime by offering what many in the area consider a bribe. In a letter sent to everyone on the Grand List, Seneca Mountain project manager John Soininen said that if the project is built, the company “is proposing to create a UTG Landowner Fund which will distribute funds each year to all UTG property owners. We estimate this will amount to…$900.” In an interview, Soininen confirmed that the annual payments would continue as long as the wind project continued operations. Were this vote an official election, that offer might well be judged a violation of the state law criminalizing “any undue influence to dictate, control, or alter the vote of a freeman.” But William Senning, the director of Elections in the Secretary of State’s office, said he doubted the statute would apply in this case.
There’s nothing on the official political calendar. It’s not an election year. Nobody’s term is up. The airways are not cluttered by candidates calling each other foul names.
But there’s a political contest going on in Vermont, and though it is both small and unofficial, it may not be trivial. The result could determine whether a wind power project known as Seneca Mountain Wind is built atop some of the wildest, most remote wildlife habitat in the state. If Seneca is constructed, it would be the third windfarm on a ridgeline in the Northeast Kingdom – after Sheffield and Lowell.
Whether the vote is trivial or significant may be debatable. What is not debatable about this political contest is that it is very, very, strange.
Right now, votes are being cast, though not in a school auditorium or a town hall. These ballots were sent out by mail and will be returned by mail, and all of them postmarked before Dec. 12 will be counted.
On Dec. 13 or thereabouts?
No, that would be an ordinary election. These ballots will be counted on Jan. 13 in Ferdinand.
That’s Ferdinand, Vt., population 32, according to the 2010 Census, one of the United Towns and Gores (total population 50), not that long ago known as the Unorganized Towns and Gores, but “United” seems more respectable. Who wants to be considered “unorganized”?
In addition to Ferdinand, the UTG consists of Averill, Avery’s Gore, Lewis, Warner’s Grant, and Warren Gore. All of them are up in the northeastern corner of the state, in Essex County, and considering that those 50 people are spread out over about 160 square miles, the population density would have to be considered sparse.
Too sparse to warrant separate, organized, towns, hence the creation of the UTG.
In fact, were this an ordinary election – the kind in which only the registered voters of a municipality get to participate – a maximum of only 39 votes would be counted. That’s how many registered voters there are in the UTG, according to Barbara Nolan of Averill, the chair of the UTG’s Board of Governors.
But this is not a one person-one vote election. It’s a one property-one vote election. That means there could be as many as 457 votes, almost all of them cast by voters who live out of the area, and 122 of whom live out of state. (There are a total of 503 parcels on the combined UTG grand list, but some individuals and companies own more than one parcel).
In this case, one property-one vote does not mean one property owner-one vote. Many of the parcels, especially the hunting and fishing camps, are co-owned. But the three or four owners of a hunting camp get only one vote among them. The ballot went to whichever partner’s name is on the grand list. Nolan said the Board of Governors emailed these owners urging them to confer with their co-owners. But that’s up to them.
Finally, this election is not really an election. It’s more like a survey, a poll asking the property owners whether they support or oppose a proposal by the Eolian Renewable Energy Co. to erect 20 wind towers along Ferdinand’s ridge lines.
Because it is a survey and not an official election, Eolian’s Seneca Mountain Wind subsidiary seems to be committing no crime by offering what many in the area consider a bribe.
In a letter sent to everyone on the Grand List, Seneca Mountain project manager John Soininen said that if the project is built, the company “is proposing to create a UTG Landowner Fund which will distribute funds each year to all UTG property owners. We estimate this will amount to…$900.”
In an interview, Soininen confirmed that the annual payments would continue as long as the wind project continued operations.
Were this vote an official election, that offer might well be judged a violation of the state law criminalizing “any undue influence to dictate, control, or alter the vote of a freeman.” But William Senning, the director of Elections in the Secretary of State’s office, said he doubted the statute would apply in this case.
Soininen said he and his colleagues at Seneca Mountain Wind “ran it by a lawyer,” before sending his letter, and pointed out that “no law prevents a private company from compensating individuals.” He likened his proposal to the Alaska Permanent Fund which distributes oil revenue to all citizens of the state (coincidentally, just about $900 this year). The comparison is inexact; the Alaska Permanent Fund was authorized by constitutional amendment and is financed by royalties on oil production in the state. But it doesn’t seem to be entirely inappropriate, either.
According to Nolan, Soininen wanted the letter with his $900-a-year offer to be mailed with the ballots.
“We asked for that information not to be put into the proposal,” Nolan said. “They wanted us to send the proposal out (in the same envelope as the ballots). The ballots went out without the proposal.”
The Board of Governors, Nolan said, “are not supporting or against” the wind project. “We’re staying neutral,” she said, language she said was highlighted in the message that accompanied the ballots.
There is little doubt that most residents in the towns around the UTG are firmly opposed to the wind project. Voters in Brighton (Island Pond) and Newark – where Eolian wanted to build more towers in what was at first a larger Seneca Mountain proposal – overwhelmingly approved town plans that would ban them. But the opponents seem by no means confident that the property owners who live out of the area will share their outlook.
So even though this is not an official election, both sides are campaigning. The opponents are calling the far-flung property owners to make their case. So, Soininen said, are he and his allies.
“We are definitely communicating with people,” he said. “We have sent numerous postcards. I’ve sent a letter. We have been calling people.”
Pro-wind organizations such as VPIRG are also urging property owners to vote yes, though VPIRG executive director Paul Burns said his organization was “not taking position on whether or not the project should be built,” but thinks it “does deserve to be considered on its merits” and hopes UTG voters “would allow that process to move forward.”
Both sides seem energized by the widespread belief that if most UTG voters oppose the project, Eolian will abandon it. That was certainly Nolan’s impression. Company officials “have agreed in several meetings,” she said, that they would abide by local opinion.
But Soininen was not quite that definitive.
Though he said, “We’re not going to pursue a project in a host community that doesn’t support it,” he left the door open for the company to “do something,” such as revising the project or waiting for what might be a more opportune time “at some point in the future.”
In fact, he said, his company does not consider the votes in Newark and Brighton to be conclusive setbacks, either. Both towns adopted their plans before Seneca Mountain Wind had presented it final proposal, he said.
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