GRAFTON – Ron Pilette quietly accepted the chairmanship of the Grafton Selectboard “with trepidation” Monday evening.
That’s because Pilette and his fellow board members are presiding over a town that’s been sharply divided by the proposed Stiles Brook Wind Project. Policy and personal disputes provide a messy background to nearly every debate, from critical issues such as voting and legal representation to minutiae such as the agenda language for meetings.
Stiles Brook opponents officially took control of the board Monday. Anti-turbine candidate John Turner was elected last week to fill a vacancy, prompting a reorganization in which Chairman Al Sands – who has clashed with wind opponents – was replaced in that leadership position by Pilette.
Pilette himself cannot lay claim to neutrality, as he is an avowed opponent of large wind turbines. But he is vowing to move Grafton toward a decision on Stiles Brook, and he’s calling for more civility as the town makes a renewed push for clear information on wind power and its impacts.
“It’s very, very easy for us to lose our way remembering past, perceived hurts,” Pilette told a crowd of more than 50 people at Grafton Elementary School on Monday evening. “But if we really intend to do our best in terms of addressing this issue and helping the voters make the best decision by providing them with sufficient and useful information, we need to move forward. We can’t keep on fighting the past.”
Iberdrola Renewables is proposing what would be Vermont’s largest turbine site – 28 windmills capable of together producing 96.6 megawatts of power – on a ridge between Grafton and Windham. Current plans call for 20 turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton.
Proponents have extolled the project’s renewable energy benefits as well as Iberdrola’s projected payments of a combined $1 million annually to the two towns. But there has been vehement opposition due to concerns about harming property values, the environment and human health.
Iberdrola recently added fuel to the fire when it issued a detailed and pointed rebuttal to such concerns.
The Selectboard’s makeup will help determine the tone and direction of Grafton’s discussions on the wind project. Skip Lisle, a vocal Stiles Brook opponent, was named vice chairman. And Turner was voted the board’s clerk.
But it appears the fate of Stiles Brook will rest on proposed townwide votes later this year in both communities, as Iberdrola has said it will abide by those results.
How that vote is conducted, however, is a matter of debate. Grafton’s large contingent of second-home owners has demanded a role in the town’s deliberations, but both the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Vermont secretary of state’s office have said there is no legal way for nonresidents to participate in an official Australian ballot vote.
On Monday, Grafton town attorney Robin Stern underscored that argument. “The statutes are really clear … that those who can vote are registered voters of the town,” Stern said.
That leaves the town in a difficult situation. Grafton voters previously decided that any vote on wind energy facilities should be conducted via Australian ballot, and Iberdrola has said it will heed only ballots cast by full-time residents.
The Selectboard’s new chairman wrote in a recent letter that he is “fully committed to a vote by Australian ballot by our legally registered voters.” Pilette added that, “for me, the vote should not be on a (wind) proposal but whether or not to enter into negotiations in the first instance.”
On Monday, he also threw a bone to nonresidents, saying he will “fight very hard to find a strong voice for our second-home owners. They deserve nothing less than that.” Pilette didn’t detail the town’s options on that front, though they might include a survey or poll of second-home owners.
Voting questions aside, Grafton also is wrestling with several other Stiles Brook issues. Those include whether to hire additional legal help and whether to enter into negotiations with Iberdrola.
Iberdrola has offered to reimburse some of the town’s legal expenses, but some worry there may be strings attached to such money. “The concern I have is, if we take any money from Iberdrola before a vote … it seems to taint the vote,” Lisle said.
The town attorney, though, urged the Selectboard to consider accepting help with the potentially “enormous” costs of investigating Stiles Brook’s impacts and the town’s options. “I’m not seeing it as a trap for the town, because you’d be in control of (the attorney) you choose, the scope of services and how that would work,” Stern said.
Sands believes the town must be better prepared to deal with a wind project.
Even if Grafton voters reject Stiles Brook, “the (state) Public Service Board may still decide it is an opportunity for the state of Vermont, which is why we have consistently been told that we should be working with a lawyer with this type of expertise,” Sands said. “Grafton deserves a better-thought-out plan of action than counting on a ‘no’ vote and it all goes away.”
The town might come up with a better plan, some argue, if it had better information about the wind proposal. That’s why Pilette on Monday proposed – and a majority of the Selectboard ultimately endorsed – formation of three committees to examine the project’s environmental, health and economic impacts.
The five-member committees are to include one person who supports the wind project, one who opposes it, one who is undecided, a second-home owner and a Selectboard member. Officials are soliciting volunteers to represent those groups.
Some warned that the committees could be sources of more wind-related contentiousness. “You’re just going to have more meetings that look just like this one, and that is going to create more strife than we already have,” Grafton resident Joe Westclark told the board.
Pilette didn’t deny the challenge the committees will face in the months ahead. “I see this as being very difficult to pull off,” he said. “I just think it’s the duty of the board to make that attempt.”
After his first session as board chairman, Pilette pronounced it “a pretty good meeting.” But not everyone shared that sentiment.
When Lisle said he believed the board was making progress Monday night, Sands responded, “You’re making progress because you’re headed in the direction you want to go.”
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding