GRAFTON – For four years, Grafton’s biggest taxpayer and biggest employer had stayed neutral on the town’s biggest controversy: the proposed Stiles Brook Wind Project.
That changed Friday, when the Windham Foundation issued a statement strongly opposing construction of the 28-turbine project on a ridgeline that separates Grafton from Windham.
Foundation representatives wrote that they “respect everyone’s point of view on this important matter.” But they have concluded that the wind project is “not in Grafton’s best interest” based on environmental, economic and aesthetic concerns.
“If the wind project is built, and the impact of construction and operation is adverse to the beauty and experience of Grafton as we know it, there will be no way to turn back,” the foundation’s letter says. “In our judgment, the risk to Grafton and all we seek to preserve is too great.”
In response to the foundation’s announcement, Stiles Brook developer Iberdrola Renewables noted that the company has scheduled public meetings Tuesday and Wednesday to announce changes to the wind project’s footprint and its economic benefit package.
“It’s unfortunate that the foundation board did not take time to review this (revised) proposal before making their decision,” Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman said. “Their decision is also disappointing, as the reasoning behind it appears to be based upon inaccurate information and confused facts.”
Iberdrola has proposed what would be Vermont’s largest wind turbine site in the privately owned Stiles Brook Forest. As the project is currently designed, there would be 20 turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton, capable of producing a combined 96.6 megawatts of power.
The project first was disclosed publicly in 2012, and it has spurred strong opposition in both towns among those who are concerned about negative impacts to the landscape, property values and human health.
Iberdrola has tried to debunk those arguments while also touting the project as a major source of renewable energy.
The debate will come to a head Nov. 8, when Windham residents are scheduled to vote on the project. Iberdrola has said it will abide by the results.
Grafton officials have not yet decided whether the town will have a Stiles Brook vote on Election Day. But the Grafton-based Windham Foundation decided to cast a symbolic vote Friday.
Begun in 1963, the foundation maintains an influential presence both as a property owner and a protector of Grafton’s image as a quintessential New England village. The town, with a population of fewer than 700, relies heavily on tourism and second-home owners for an economic boost.
The Windham Foundation owns and operates the Grafton Inn, Grafton Village Cheese Co. and Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center. A number of other local businesses – including galleries and a village garage and store – occupy buildings the foundation owns.
The foundation also has invested millions into the region via scholarships, grant programs and funding for town improvements.
In a letter written for the Grafton News, Edward Zuccaro, the foundation’s board chairman, and Elizabeth Bankowski, its president and chief executive officer, said they’ve been “paying close attention” to the Stiles Brook debate.
In explaining their decision to oppose the wind project, Zuccaro and Bankowski cited the foundation’s focus on “preserving and promoting the vitality of Grafton and Vermont’s rural communities.” They also wrote that “the exquisite harmony of the natural and built landscapes of Grafton is a precious asset with considerable social and economic value.”
That value, foundation administrators believe, could take a hit if the Stiles Brook Wind Project is built.
They don’t think the wind project is necessary to help the state meet its renewable energy goals. And they argued that the project’s proposed tax benefits may be less than advertised, resulting in “little or no net gain” for some homeowners who qualify for an income-based adjustment to their taxes.
“Altering the delicate balance inherent in the rural character of this area is a risk that should not be taken unless we are certain that the benefits outweigh any negative consequences,” Zuccaro and Bankowski wrote.
Contacted Friday, Bankowski did not comment beyond the sentiments expressed in the letter. She did say the foundation had not met with “representatives of either side” in the Stiles Brook debate before coming to a conclusion about the project.
While Iberdrola expressed dismay about the foundation’s stance, the letter brought applause from Grafton Woodlands Group, an anti-turbine organization that sprang up in response to the Stiles Brook proposal.
Anna Vesely and Carol Lind, co-directors of the group, issued a statement saying they appreciate that “in opposing the industrial wind project, the Windham Foundation has upheld its mission to ‘preserve and promote the vitality of Grafton and Vermont’s rural communities.’”
“This echoes our mission, which is to protect Grafton’s heritage,” they wrote. “We’re thrilled.”
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