A proposed 28-turbine wind project has grown so contentious that even the format of public meetings spurs vehement debate.
As international wind developer Iberdrola Renewables continues to refine plans for what could be Vermont’s largest turbine site, the company has scheduled public “technical workshops” for April 5 in Grafton and April 6 in Windham.
“The goal of the public meetings … is to share information gleaned from site-specific evaluations of the Stiles Brook tract by the experts performing the actual scientific studies,” Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman said.
But opposition groups in both towns are criticizing that format. Rather than the informational booths Iberdrola is planning, Grafton Woodlands Group and Friends of Windham have lobbied for a panel discussion featuring representatives of both sides of the debate.
Iberdrola officials say they’ve worked hard to engage residents on the proposed project. But wind power critics say the company’s efforts are an attempt to control the conversation rather than inform the public.
“We are shocked that they are proposing yet another meeting where free exchange of information and ideas will be not just discouraged but crudely squelched,” wrote Nancy Tips on behalf of Friends of Windham.
It’s been nearly four years since Iberdrola administrators first disclosed that they were interested in building wind turbines within the 5,000-acre Stiles Brook Forest. The land lies in both Windham and Grafton and is owned by New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd.
In October, Iberdrola detailed its preliminary plans for a 96.6-megawatt project that would place 20 turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton. The company also projected a combined $1 million in annual tax payments to the towns.
Meadowsend has offered environmental and economic reasons for supporting the project, saying turbines would allow the property to continue functioning as a working landscape that allows for public access.
But the opposition groups have raised concerns about health, environmental, aesthetic and property value impacts, organizing a series of public meetings held periodically in Grafton.
Officials in Windham also have pointed to their town plan, which opposes large turbines and may or may not play a significant role in eventual state permitting for the Stiles Brook project.
Iberdrola administrators say they “have been working to provide answers to some of the highly technical questions we have been asked” and that the April 5 and 6 workshops are meant to disclose some of the company’s findings.
The meetings are scheduled for 6 to 8 p.m. and will be held at each town’s elementary school. Topics include “initial sound assessments, visuals, delivery route evaluation surveys and the continuation of wildlife and environmental studies,” Iberdrola’s new community newsletter says.
Copleman said the delivery route study focuses on how construction vehicles and equipment would get to the turbine site, “as those possible routes are naturally a question we field frequently from folks in the community.” The Vermont Agency of Transportation provides guidance on that topic, he added.
In response to Iberdrola’s meeting announcement, Friends of Windham and Grafton Woodlands Group members released a letter to Jenny Briot, a senior business developer with the company. The letter is dated March 4, which is after Iberdrola’s mailing announcing the workshops was distributed.
“We are concerned that the format allows for the information to be presented from only one point of view,” the letter says. “As you know, there are several points of view regarding whether the placement of wind turbines is appropriate in the Stiles Brook Forest.”
The letter, signed by Tips and three members of Grafton Woodlands Group, instead suggests a panel discussion that would include Iberdrola’s representatives as well as “an equal number of subject-matter experts, consultants and advocates with no personal stake in the Stiles Brook Forest project.”
That’s apparently not going to happen, leading to a stiff rebuke issued this week by the opposition groups. “How many times can (Iberdrola administrators) tell us one thing, and then do another?” Tips wrote. “Many people in our communities don’t trust Iberdrola and are unwilling to allow them to control the conversation.”
Copleman objected to that characterization.
“This information builds on the information communicated with the communities of Grafton and Windham in the eight previous public meetings and roughly dozen newsletters that we’ve delivered,” he said. “We will be certain to provide ample time for those in attendance to ask questions of the presenters as well as Iberdrola Renewables employees.”
Beyond the argument over the upcoming meetings’ format, wind critics contend Iberdrola’s announcement “contributes to community distrust” by furthering a pattern of misleading information from the company.
For example, they point to confusion over Iberdrola’s Stiles Brook filings with ISO New England, which administers the regional power grid. Iberdrola last year withdrew its initial ISO interconnection application, with administrators saying they needed to adjust the filing due to the inclusion of newer, larger turbines in project plans.
According to an email Tips forwarded to VTDigger.org, Briot wrote to Tips in late November that the ISO application “will be filed … this week.” But that never happened, leading some to wonder whether the Stiles Brook project had been set back or even canceled.
Iberdrola now is tying the ISO application to community sentiment: The company’s latest newsletter says there will be no interconnection reapplication unless local voters support the Stiles Brook project in votes expected later this year.
Copleman characterized that as a business decision, noting that an ISO application is an involved process with time and cost considerations. And he said delaying the reapplication is not expected to significantly change Iberdrola’s project schedule, which calls for construction starting in 2019.
“If we’re fortunate enough to win the vote in the fall, there’s still a multiyear process that remains,” Copleman said. “So there’s time within that to complete the ISO process.”
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