The Grafton Select Board of Monday, May 4, continued to focus on the Iberdrola Renewables wind project, changes in the Town Plan and whether Select Board and Planning Commission members were facing a conflict of interest in regards to both.
In a breaking story, Michael Faher of the Brattleboro Reformer reported on Tuesday that Iberdrola Renewables has filed a request with ISO New England to connect to its regional power grid. Iberdrola officials haven’t said how many turbines they intend to build or where, although they are testing turbines in a 5,000-acre forest in Windham and Grafton.
Robin Stern, the lawyer for the town, attended the meeting to address these issues, which have been percolating in the community for months.
Public comment started the meeting with Don Dougall asking for clarification regarding what was needed to remove a planning commission member. The Select Board members in attendance – Skip Lisle was absent – agreed that a unanimous vote meant all five members and not a quorum. Dougall then read a letter from former Select Board chair Alan Sands, who could not attend the meeting. According to Dougall, Sands referred to the wind project as “huge,” and said that Article 4 was put to the voters at town meeting because of its importance to the community. That article allows residents to vote upon any wind energy projects.
In the letter, he charged that three members of the Select Board had a conflict of interest, that they were using their town positions for gain and that the Town Plan was being written to restrict the wind project, which was against the town folks’ wishes.
Three test towers are currently up – on adjacent properties – one in Grafton and two in Windham.
Attorney Stern first addressed the issue of the adoption of a Town Plan, which, she said, is governed by Vermont statutes. Unlike zoning, a town plan is only an advisory document that serves as a guide for Act 250 review as well as the Public Service Board.
She stated that anyone could suggest changes to the Town Plan but that it is usually the Select Board, and not the voters, who adopt it. However, voters could petition to bring amendments to the Town Plan to a townwide vote. Prior to adoption, two public hearings are held by the Select Board and the Planning Commission in which town members can review and voice their opinions.
Stern added that the Select Board could recommend that the plan be adopted by Australian ballot. However, she said that this is not the standard process and can potentially be more time consuming and costly than the normal public hearings and adoption by the Select Board.
Stern then moved to Article 4, which was adopted at March 2013 Town Meeting, when issues regarding the wind project had surfaced. Article 4 reads: “Shall the Town of Grafton vote on any issue regarding commercial wind energy production facility(ies) project or the regulation of such by Australian Ballot?” She stated that the adoption was considered a political advisory vote but did not give Grafton residents the right to change or amend the Town Plan. She added that Article 4 does not change legal authority and that Select Board members have a right to do their job as they see fit.
Stern next addressed the conflict of interest policy. She said that there were two types of conflict of interest to consider: monetary gain and indirect or direct personal gain that is more than any other voter in town. The first is straightforward. However, she added, the second is hard to prove and has a high legal bar. She also said that members of the Select Board and Planning Commission do not give up their First Amendment rights or their political opinions when they take office, although they should be open minded.
Select Board member Noralee Hall read two emails from the Vermont League of Cities and Towns Municipal Assistance Center that also supported Sterns comments.
Resident Kent Armstrong said that two members of the Planning Commission had conflicts of interest with Rex James being employed by a solar company and Liisa Kissel being a member of an anti-wind group. Stern said her “immediate reaction” was that these did not seem to be conflicts.
She also addressed a letter regarding a potential a conflict of interest by Select Board member Skip Lisle through his involvement with the High Meadows grant, which the town has applied for, and his contracting business. Stern did not believe that Lisle violated the public’s trust and was only giving information relevant to the grant. Hall followed by reading a letter from Lisle, stating that he had only been providing information and not in any manner endorsing his business.
Community members also raised concern about the availability of information on the wind project. Lisa Record, a former Select Board member, thought that more information was needed but that the anti-wind group was putting the “kibosh” on information being provided. Select Board member Ron Pilette said he did not think that he had enough information on the wind project, but added that none had been forth coming. Melissa Belcher, who works at Meadowsend Timberland’s Grafton office, which is a partner in the wind project, said that her office at 21 Route 121 E. in Grafton is open and that she regularly attends select board meetings.
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