From community leaders to local activists, Vermonters are worried that Spanish wind-energy developer Iberdrola will renege on its promise to honor a vote on a 28-turbine wind farm proposed for Windham and Grafton.
On Nov. 8, legal residents of Windham will vote for or a against a proposal to build the largest wind energy plant in Vermont, the Stiles Brook Wind Project. While Iberdrola leaders say they will honor the outcome of a vote by both towns, some observers say they aren’t confident the company will keep its promise.
“I wouldn’t necessarily trust them,” said Ben Luce, associate professor of Physics and Sustainability Studies at Lyndon State College. “I don’t think that wind companies in general are honest about the impacts of their projects to begin with, so I’m not sure that I would trust them one way or another about their statements about a vote.”
The 97-megawatt installation is meeting strong local resistance as residents are sensitive about the destruction of their prized mountain scenery, delicate wildlife habitats and flood-prone waterways. While the company hasn’t yet applied to the Public Service Board, the plan includes the siting of 20 turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton, all within the Stiles Brook Forest, a large working forest area that spreads across the two towns and part of Townshend.
A statement from Iberdrola spokeswoman Jenny Briot to Grafton residents late last year promised that the company would follow the will of the townspeople, no matter the outcome: “As we first indicated in our public meetings in June, after a vote on a completed project proposal by the registered voters of the Town of Grafton, Iberdrola Renewables will respect the outcome of that vote.”
Windham received a similar statement.
While Windham has approved a vote by Australian ballot, Grafton is conducting a non-binding poll. The Windham vote prohibits voting by second-home owners, who while not legal residents, account for 60 percent of tax revenue. The Grafton poll will include all residents, both part-time and full-time.
Luce notes that New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands, property owner for the proposed project, could also balk at a town vote.
“They are the main reason that a wind project is being proposed,” Luce said. “I know people have talked to Meadowsend, but I don’t think they have … stated that they’ll permanently respect a vote, either. Even if Iberdrola walks away, they might just recruit somebody else.”
Spokespersons from Iberdrola and from Meadowsend Timberlands did not return Watchdog’s requests for comment.
Skip Lisle, chair of the Grafton Selectboard, is hopeful Iberdrola will respect a vote.
“They should respect the will of the people in these towns and the governments of these towns … and if they have any honor at all they will,” he said.
Lisle added that he is concerned about who will be voting.
“It’s unfortunate that anybody looks at this in terms of Grafton and Windham, because with industrial wind it’s the people who are close who really get hammered,” he said.
“Once you get four or five miles away, unless you have property that is looking right at them, you are not going to be affected. But if you are just a mile or two away, you are going to be subject to audible sound, health-damaging infrasound and the visual effects as well. The only fair way to vote is to draw a radius around the project area.”
Lynn Barrett, spokesperson for the Grafton Woodlands Group, a grassroots organization opposed to the project, said she’s not sure Iberdrola will respect the vote.
“This has come up in the past with other communities. I can’t say that they’ve backed down on their word, but there were issues where they didn’t honor the vote,” Barrett said.
Other towns in Vermont have shown little tolerance for having giant wind turbines sited near local residents. Last fall, Irasburg residents voted 274-9 against two 500-foot turbines; Swanton residents voted 731-160 against a proposal to build seven giant turbines.
Unlike those developers, Iberdrola claims it will pull the plug on the project if that’s what towns want.
“They don’t have the greatest reputation in the world, but that’s what they keep saying, we’re going to have the vote and see how it goes,” said Windham Selectboard Chair Frank Seawright.
“We hope that it comes out we’ve done lots of work trying to educate people in the town about what it means to have something like this built and we think we’ve done a good job to educate our town’s people.”
Mark Whitworth, the board president of Energize Vermont who this past week announced a center to research the impacts of giant wind farms on local communities, expressed no confidence in Iberdrola.
“I have no expectation that they will abide by a vote,” he said. “They will find something wrong, find some technicality. It may be laughable, but they will not respect the vote.”
Other observers think Iberdrola can be trusted since the company has withdrawn before. In 2014, the company withdrew a project in New Hampshire after at least two towns, Danbury and Alexandria, voted against the proposal.
Late last year, Iberdrola officially withdrew its application for the Stiles Brook project from ISO New England. The move means that no official proposal is currently on the table.
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