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Wind power stirs Swanton’s backyard

SWANTON – There might have been a time when Swanton residents could endorse, on faith, the invisible current that makes its way to wall sockets.

If so, that time is gone.

Electricity is losing its mystique here, where seven utility-scale wind turbines are proposed for a low ridge near Swanton’s border with St. Albans and Fairfield.

The plan corresponds to a growing field of so-called wind farms, on the drawing board and built, that purport to spin the Green Mountain state toward a future free of fossil fuel.

As in other parts of Vermont, the prospect of such shifts in landscape strikes local folks as thrilling – or shocking.

Swanton resident Travis Belisle falls squarely into the thrilled category.

Belisle, 42, operates a family-owned construction business, and is unabashedly ambitious. His resume includes making bio-diesel for the heavy machinery in his fleet.

He also owns most of wind-swept Rocky Ridge, a rise behind his house that is cross-hatched with old logging roads and strung with plastic sap lines.

Operating as Swanton Wind LLC, Belisle and his wife, Ashley, and his father, Gerald Belisle, are on the verge of submitting a formal proposal for permission to erect the towers and turbines, and to connect them to the New England grid.

“This is not Yosemite; it’s not Mount Mansfield,” Travis Belisle said last week. “It’s part of the working landscape. We’d just like to have it work a little harder.”

He rattled off names of a dozen or so businesses – from an auto repair shop to a rock quarry – that abut nearby Sheldon Road.

“We’re absolutely going to do this project,” Travis Belisle continued. “We’re in no hurry. We’re going to do it right.”

In the next month or so, Swanton Wind will submit its formal application to state regulators for a permit to build. Belisle hopes to get the system online by 2017.

It’s no secret that many of his neighbors are dead-set against the endeavor. Their lawn signs have proliferated throughout this corner of Vermont.

Opponents to construction on this ridge helped launch the recent call for a total ban on “industrial,” large-scale wind in Vermont.

A legacy looms beneath both sides’ rhetoric: Will large-scale power generation projects (wind or solar) be seen by the next generation as monuments to self-sufficient renewable energy – or as icons of aesthetic diminishment, loss of wildlife habit, and erosion of local control?

A visit to the scorched middle ground was in order.

Not easy

The drive north from Burlington offers the traveler several good, long glimpses of the big-bladed wind array on Georgia Mountain.

Dozens of similar-sized turbines churn away further north, across Lake Champlain in Clinton County, New York.

Travis Belisle smiled as he studied them from his driveway.

Below his house, beside a small pond, a single-story wind turbine  – something like a ceiling fan atop a Dust Bowl-era derrick – stood inert, waiting for a breeze to power a small aerator for fish.

Belisle shifted his view to the east, to the sharp rise of Rocky Ridge.

He drove some visitors partway up in his jacked-up, big-wheeled Jeep. Belisle knows the trails as well as the roads: He grew up hunting here.

Belisle figures legal, engineering, and environmental fees for the project have cost him nearly $1 million so far.

“Why not just buy a house in the Caribbean? Because the world’s in trouble, and we’re trying to do our part,” he said. “It’d be irresponsible not to put them up. The easy thing is to do is nothing.”

Front lines

On a neighboring property, the dining room table of Christine and Dustin Lang is heaped with maps, correspondence, and technical sheets.

They’ve been working full-tilt, they say, to outline for state regulators their objections to Swanton Wind.

Belisle’s company built the Rocky Ridge residential development, and every home buyer – including the Langs – has signed a waiver that acknowledges that a wind development might be built on the hill above their homes.

As the crow flies, at least one of the turbines will be within a half mile of the dwellings around here – including the Belisles’ home.

But the scale of Swanton Wind’s towers caught the Langs completely off guard. Rocky Ridge rises about 500 feet from Sheldon Road, Dustin Lang said.

“The turbines double the size of the hill,” he said.

Nor does Lang have any faith that the structures would ever be completely removed as part of a decommissioning process.

Lang is unconvinced he’ll be able to tolerate the turbines’ sound. “I’ve heard it described as a brick wrapped in a towel, rolling around in a barrel: whump, whump, whump, whump,” he said.

(Belisle said he finds the sound of live turbines “soothing, like waves on a beach.”)

But the Langs’ major complaints are leveled at the state.

Large-scale energy projects, they argue, should be subjected to the rigorous standards of an Act 250 review, rather than the relative fast-track of Act 248 permitting, which oversees Vermont’s energy projects.

“The process is catering to developer’s whims,” said Christine Lang. “The state of Vermont has set this up to benefit them, and to benefit lawyers.

“Our goal is just to participate,” she added. “This is supposed to be a public process. If you get the Act 250 process, that’s not lawyers. That’s people sitting down and working together.”

Christine Lang wants every voice, somehow, to count.

“How many people have to have their quality of life significantly impaired before you can say you have a problem? As far as I’m concerned, just one,” she said.

Is there any place in Vermont for large-scale wind?

“I don’t think there is,” Christine Lang said. “If you can’t put them anywhere without them being safe for people, they don’t belong here.”

Watershed blues

To the immediate east of Rocky Ridge, it’d be hard to argue that the dozens of small homes around Fairfield Pond constitute a working landscape.

Yet this corner of Vermont hosts an abundance of wildlife, much of it dependent on a fragile system of forest and wetlands, said Sally Collopy, whose house and garden are perched along the shoreline.

In her basement, amid stacks of placards and signs used in recent demonstrations, she displayed a photograph manipulated to ostensibly show the scale of the turbines’ intrusion across the hilltop.

Any interruption of her view to the west bothers her less than the potential impact of construction on water quality, particularly through sediment-rich runoff.

“The ANR (Agency of Natural Resources) needs to fight for their beliefs,” Collopy said. “It’s shameful what’s being overlooked. It’s almost embarrassing.

“We’re all for renewables,” she added. “But the state is turning people away from renewables because there’s no plan. Pushing it down people’s throats is not the way to go about it.”

The state meanwhile, will officially weigh in on Swanton Wind only after it receives a permit application from the developer.

It could happen any day now.

Neighbors’ nests

And if the Belisles’ project gets a go-ahead?

Collopy says she’ll move.

The Langs say they’ll move out of state, to protest what they see as an official sanction of large-scale energy projects.

And the Belisles?

“However it sugars out, I still want to be a good neighbor,” Travis Belisle said.

“We live in this community, and we don’t plan on moving,” he continued. “I think people will thank us when they discover the sky isn’t falling.”

Although he doesn’t expect to kick off anytime soon, Belisle said he’s been working on an epitaph for his tombstone.

The best one he’s come up with so far: “He was an entrepreneur. He stuck his neck out there.”