FERDINAND, Vt. – Pete Rodin stands on the shore of Island Pond looking at a view he treasures and fears losing.
“Shumlin can talk about his gems of Camel’s Hump and Mount Mansfield; this is our gem,” Rodin said.
Rodin, who owns land in Averil and lives in Island Pond, says the Seneca Mountain ridgeline is special. That’s why he’s concerned about the potential impact of wind turbines both on the land and the economy.
“It’s just devastating what the ecological value of the area when you do that. It sort of becomes the center or the focus whenever you look at. You no longer are seeing this beautiful lake here,” Rodin said.
The Seneca Mountain project currently calls for building 20 turbines on ridgelines in Ferdinand, one of the six communities that make up the Unified Towns and Gores or UTG. It was scaled back by about one-third earlier this year after opposition from residents of Newark. Votes from a UTG election this month will be counted in January to see if the proposal has support of property owners.
Dan Ouimette owns the land that will host the project.
“It’s a win-win situation as far as I’m concerned,” Ouimette said. “There’s going to be more jobs created because of this and we’re not taking much space here.”
Looking closely at the UTG election results will be the project’s developer, Eolian Wind. On this day, John Soininen, one of four partners in the Portsmouth, N.H.-based company, loads into tracked four-wheelers for a site visit. The 4- to 5-mile journey on private property starts on roads built for logging and snowmobiling. The wide road becomes a rough, narrow trail approaching the ridgeline.
Soininen and crew are here to replace a bad sensor on a meteorological tower, one of four the Public Service Board approved in August to allow the company to test wind and atmospheric conditions at the site.
In what may be one of the biggest twists in the Vermont wind wars, Soininen says he considers himself an environmentalist and that his motives have been misconstrued.
“We do feel a little bit misjudged,” he said. “We’ve been accused of a lot of things, and at the end of the day honestly our intent is to deliver clean, renewable power to the grid for societies benefit.”
While he admits there will be impacts, Soininen says they can be managed in a responsible way.
“This is not a pristine forest. This is not an untouched wilderness. This area has been logged for generations. It’s a working forest. Ultimately, we’re going to impact less than 150 acres of 10,000 that we lease. So, 98 percent of the land area will not be touched,” Soininen said.
The payoff, he says, will be enough electricity for about 26,000 average homes from a sustainable renewable resource to combat climate change.
With few year-round residents, the UTG extended the vote this month to all property owners in the six member towns, including many who live out-of state. Eolian advertised $900 annual payments to UTG landowners– what some have called a blatant effort to buy votes. Soinenen calls it an appropriate way to compensate property owners. He says the company will abide by the decision of the majority of UTG voters.
Even if it were to go forward, the project has a number of regulatory hurdles, from impacts on sensitive habitat to whether the power transmission infrastructure can support it. With endangered state species like the American martin and Canada lynx, as well as the wealth of surrounding federal and state conservation land, state ANR officials say the region is a high priority.
“Any landscape-scale development of the scale that’s being proposed up there would be challenging, frankly. It’s not to say it couldn’t happen, but we would need to do some rigorous analysis and really look at what the details of the project were,” said Billy Coster of the Agency of Natural Resources.
While he agrees that lower elevations have been impacted by roads and logging, Coster says it is the upper elevations and ridgeline that have been less impacted and are of greater concern.
This month’s vote put the state ANR in an awkward position. Wind opponents say the agency hasn’t done enough when it comes to providing UTG voters with the information they need to make an informed decision.
“I’m still very disappointed in the Agency of Natural Resources, which there mission is to protect the environment, that they haven’t come out and said there are certain places in Vermont that there shouldn’t be industrial scale wind,” said Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans counties.
Rodgers says he’s had personal reassurances from the governor that Seneca won’t happen, but that the lack of public statements is not reassuring. He also holds little faith in the recent vote.
“It’s the first time that I’ve ever heard of that any municipality or municipal government has taken a vote where out of state landowners are tallied,” Rodgers said.
Back in Island Pond, Pete Rodin shares that sentiment.
“A blatant attempt at bribing people, buying their votes,” he said. “I’m not against renewables, but this is not the place have an industrial wind farm and there’s a lot of other places in Vermont that shouldn’t have them.”
Battle lines drawn in the fight over the Northeast Kingdom’s next wind project.
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