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Windham agrees to vote on state’s largest wind project

WINDHAM – The stage is set for a vote that could have big implications for the town of Windham’s landscape and for the wind industry in Vermont.

The Windham Selectboard this week authorized a Nov. 8 Australian ballot vote to determine whether residents support construction of the 28-turbine Stiles Brook Wind Project, which would be the state’s largest wind power site.

While Vermont towns do not have statutory veto power over such projects, Stiles Brook developer Iberdrola Renewables says it won’t move forward if residents in Windham and neighboring Grafton reject the proposal via Australian ballot votes.

Grafton officials have not yet decided whether to allow such a vote. But Windham Selectboard Chairman Frank Seawright – who is an outspoken opponent of the project – said residents in his town will have their say.

“(Iberdrola representatives) have repeatedly committed themselves to abiding by the outcome of the vote,” Seawright said. “So, let’s find out how people stand on it.”

Iberdrola last year disclosed plans to build 20 turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton. All would be located in Stiles Brook Forest, a 5,000-acre tract owned by New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd.

Proponents say the renewable energy project would, in addition to its environmental benefits, pump a total of $1 million into the two towns’ coffers annually. But there has been vehement opposition by those who raise concerns about the project’s potential impacts on the environment, property values and human health.

Iberdrola disputes such arguments, saying critics are relying on “false claims.”

Wind power projects need a permit from the state Public Service Board. But Iberdrola has said it won’t even apply to the board without affirmation by legal residents in both towns, as long as those votes are “fair” and conducted via Australian ballot.

As with everything related to Stiles Brook, the vote debate has been drawn-out and controversial. Second-home owners have demanded a say but can’t participate in a legal vote, and some residents in Windham and Grafton have questioned whether the towns should vote at all.

In Windham, officials have decided that residents will weigh this question Nov. 8: “Shall the registered voters of the town of Windham support development of the Stiles Brook Wind Project, as proposed by Iberdrola Renewables, to be located on the Stiles Brook Forest, owned by Meadowsend Timberlands, Ltd.?”

Selectboard members this week endorsed the phrasing of the ballot question – wording that is identical to that proposed by Iberdrola.

Seawright said Selectboard members “looked at it and thought about it” and decided the wording was fair.

But he said he has no idea how the vote might turn out. “We have behaved responsibly,” Seawright said of Stiles Brook opponents in the town. “We’ve educated ourselves on the issues and spent a lot of time on it.”

He also offered this warning: “Everybody should know that an uninformed or misinformed vote counts as much as a well-informed vote.”

In a letter to Windham last week, Iberdrola administrator Jenny Briot applauded the town’s decision to have an Australian ballot vote on the issue. “We appreciate the town taking steps to allow all of its registered voters to weigh in directly on this project and its potential benefits to the community,” Briot said.

It’s not yet clear whether that will happen in Grafton, though.

Selectboard Chairman Ron Pilette said the board is making preparations for a poll or survey that will include three options: in favor of Stiles Brook Wind, opposed or undecided. There also could be space for comments or questions.

Such a survey would include all legal voters in Grafton, but it may also be sent to other taxpayers such as second-home owners and business owners. How that might happen is still “a work in progress,” and a schedule for distributing the survey has not been set, Pilette said.

There was debate about whether to allow something other than a yes or no answer on the survey, Pilette said. “We decided to stick with the notion of giving people the option of being undecided, although that might leave us with less of a sense of where people stand now,” he said.

The survey also might leave the town with less traction with Iberdrola, especially if it doesn’t pave the way for a legal ballot question on Stiles Brook in November.

“Whether we go ahead with an Australian ballot vote is another issue,” Pilette said. “The Selectboard is not committed to an Australian ballot vote.”

Pilette – a Stiles Brook opponent who recently became Selectboard chairman – noted that three volunteer committees in Grafton have just begun studying the potential environmental, economic and health impacts of the Stiles Brook project.

“The idea of these committees is to acquire information,” Pilette said. “We’re asking them to do this relatively quickly.”