GRAFTON – A group of people who own second homes in Grafton want a say in a townwide vote later this year on a proposed wind project that could be the largest in the state.
A letter signed by 34 second-homeowners was presented to the Grafton Select Board last week, saying they paid a lot of taxes to the town and deserved to be heard on such a crucial issue.
Sam Battaglino, chairman of the Grafton Select Board, said Friday he was sympathetic to their concerns about the impact the wind project could have on the town.
“This is a major, major undertaking in Grafton,” he said. “It will be the largest wind project in Vermont and it’s a huge deal for Grafton.”
Iberdrola Renewable has said it will not build the project if it isn’t supported by townspeople in Windham and Grafton, and has suggested that the towns vote on the issue. The two votes on the 96-megawatt project are tentatively slated for this fall.
Battaglino is opposed to the project, which would be built in both Windham and Grafton. A private timber company, Meadowsend Timberlands, wants to lease part of its 5,500-acre forest to the Spanish energy company to erect 28 turbines, 20 in Windham and eight in Grafton.
Battaglino said an artist and second-homeowner, Jud Hartmann, presented the letter to the Select Board, along with a list of other second-homeowners who want a voice.
“It’s going to change the fabric of the community forever if it does happen,” Battaglino said. “I think they feel like they’re left out.”
Battaglino said the issue of people who live and vote in other states and also want to vote here is “a ticklish subject.”
“They shouldn’t be able to vote for statewide offices,” he said. “But these are people who are abreast of what’s going on and some know more than the actual Graftonites. They know more than some of the people in town.”
He noted that the vacationers keep up to date with the Iberdrola project via social media and the town’s monthly newspaper, “Grafton News.”
He said the second-homeowners in Grafton pay 60 percent of all the taxes in town. “It’s basically taxation without representation,” he said.
The tourism-oriented town is often listed as one of the most picturesque towns in the state, attracting wealthy people seeking the New England small-town ideal.
Hartmann, a Maine artist who has a gallery on Grafton’s Main Street, presented the letter to the Select Board. Hartmann couldn’t be reached for comment, and other people who signed the letter declined to comment on the record.
Hartmann’s letter said the Iberdrola project “would have an enormous impact on nature, the local economy and the character of the town.”
It continued, “We believe that all members of the Grafton community should be polled to determine the town’s position.”
The letter suggested that all registered voters and all taxpayers be included in any vote, and that the Select Board should present the vote to Iberdrola as the “formal and only position of the town of Grafton on the matter.”
Hartmann and other opponents said there were “clear precedents in Vermont” for such a referendum, noting that the towns of Brighton, Londonderry, Newark, and the unified towns and gores expressed an opinion on wind turbines.
But according to the Vermont secretary of state’s office, people who are not registered voters cannot have a voice in a legally binding vote.
Will Senning, director of elections and campaign finance for the office, said the Vermont Constitution requires that people participating in a vote be registered voters.
Senning said other Vermont towns have struggled with the issue and come up with alternate ways to gauge people’s opinions, but it didn’t include a warned, legal vote.
“They cannot; it’s just election law,” said Senning. “They can’t do that, is the simple answer.”
Advisory articles cannot be binding, he said, noting Vermont’s tradition of including articles at town meeting on issues the town has no authority over. He noted Brattleboro’s vote on impeaching former President George Bush and Vice President Cheney as an example.
Towns are free to do an informal survey of property owners, he said.
“If they want to have a more formal vote,” he said, “it would only include registered voters. My advice is to work it out with the company and do a survey and hopefully have the company pay for the mailing fee.”