After a rocky start that began with the announced resignation and departure of Select Board chair Gus Plummer, the Grafton Select Board meeting Monday night continued in fits and starts as agenda items moved and were challenged. But finally the remaining four board members and the 60 or so in attendance settled down to listen to and question an attorney who had come to speak about what to prepare for in possible negotiations with a wind developer.
The appearance of the attorney, Richard Saudek, had caused a stir among those opposed to the 96 megawatt wind project proposal, which would bring eight turbines to Grafton and 20 to neighboring Windham. Opponents, skeptical of Saudek, said the decision to put him on the agenda seemed to be a rush to “do Iberdrola’s bidding.” They also claimed that since only three of the five Select Board members were informed of his coming – and there was never a public vote on inviting him, his appearance was illegal.
But several residents also said they were concerned that they were not hearing about the project’s benefits to the town, only about the problems.
Al Sands, who was acting chair in Plummer’s absence and had invited Saudek to speak, said, “Some think that all we have to do is to vote down the wind project and it will go away.” He was referring to a public vote on whether the town wanted the project or not that developer Iberdrola said it would abide by. But, added Sands, “There are people in high places that make things happen even if we don’t want it to. What will Iberdrola do with the $2 million in research” that it has invested in the local project? “Sell it to another developer who won’t abide by the vote,” he answered.
Finally, around 7:30 p.m., 90 minutes into the meeting, Saudek was allowed to speak, which he did pretty much non-stop for the next 90 minutes.
Saudek, now an attorney with Diamond & Robinson in Montpelier, has also served as chair of the state Public Service Board and as the first commissioner of the Department of Public Service, where he was involved in utility regulation. He also has represented a number of towns faced with large-scale wind projects.
He attempted to layout a blueprint for navigating and controlling the situation, telling the group that if Iberdrola came up with a contract and “you think it should be changed, cut (the number of turbines) them back, move it (the project). They don’t have much choice if you have a decent advocate. … If you people feel so strongly, Iberdrola might pull the windmills and put them all in Windham.”
Saudek then urged the townspeople to create their own project description before going into a townwide vote. That description would include the number and size of the wind turbines, the length of the contract, the acceptable noise levels, among others. “The noise problem has never really been appreciated,” he said. “Have someone with good equipment … who can go toe-to-toe” with Iberdrola’s experts.
The PSB, he said, hasn’t handled the sound issue very well. “But since a couple of wind farms have gone up, they are struggling to decide the standards,” Saudek said. “Set the standards, agree on the standards, and (if the project is built) make sure it is monitored when it is up.” He suggested that noncompliance could force a shutdown of one or more turbines.
Another issue – which he called a surprise issue – is roads. “In order to bring those things in, they need big roads,” he said. Once a developer secures a Certificate of Public Good from the PSB, “they come in like gangbusters. … Towns should get prior signoff on where and what kind of roads and what rules will govern the infrastructure, bridges, stormwater runoff. You can get pretty detailed.”
The impacts on private property is a tricky area, he said. “Most people don’t want neighbors to suffer. But I’ve been careful – towns shouldn’t get between a private individual and a developer,” he said. But he later suggested that the town could set up a fund – even from monies from Iberdrola – to help individual homeowners.
He also warned that he “would bet that if this project gets built, within five years someone else will own it. They’ll flip it. The successor will have to live by the contract.” He suggested that the town have the PSB write the contract into the Certificate of Public Good so that if the new owner violates it, the project gets shut down, he said. Saudek also suggested having decommissioning written into the contract as well.
And he also suggested that the town get the developer to put money into an escrow account to fund the experts that the town will need to address the various issues: sound, infrastructure, legal, wetlands and environmental. That fund, he suggested would be $100,000 managed by an independent attorney with the Select Board approval as opposed to the $10,000 that Iberdrola suggested, with any charges above that needing its approval.
Saudek also brought up the issue of second-homeowners participating in the Iberdrola up or down vote, a date for which has not been finalized by the Select Board. He suggested that if town’s people wanted “second homeowners to vote it would have to be an advisory vote, not a true town meeting and vote.” Several residents objected, one saying that “more than 50 percent of homeowners are nonresidents. Windham is including second homeowners in the ballot but the ballots are different colors.”
Former Grafton Elementary School Principal John Turner said, “I don’t understand how someone can move here, rent a place for 10 months and vote. But a person who has owned property here for years and spends lots in taxes and contributes to this town five months a year does not.”
But acting chair Sands drew a loud round of boos when he said, “I don’t think nonresidents don’t have a voice. But I don’t see any way a nonresident votes that won’t dilute the votes of residents. … Residents have a vote, nonresidents have a say. This is just my opinion.”
Saudek gave the group – especially the anti-wind folks – hope in their future prospects, saying, “One could get real skeptical of renewable power watching what happens in this state … I have more faith in the PSB now that it has two women on it. … I think Vermont is turning against wind development. I don’t want to presuppose a bias, but I think it is the noise that is doing it.” He again urged the residents, “You don’t have to take the package that Iberdrola is offering you.”
In the end, Select Board member Ron Pilette, who has spoken against the wind project, said, “If we decide to go for negotiations, we need to pull together … to address lots of issues – flooding, wildlife and bear habitat, erosion, health, economic issues…”
With that, Sands asked the board members to “go home, think about what Ron has said and draft what you think a committee would look like.”
Approached after the meeting, a number of anti-wind folks said that the information Saudek had given was very helpful and not what they were expecting.
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