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A fatal taint

Will the wind project proposed for Windham and Grafton be too noisy or too unsightly? Will it create problems of erosion on the mountainsides? Will it ruin crucial animal habitats?

It almost doesn’t matter any more. The way the developers have chosen to win votes on behalf of their project has turned their project into something worse. It is a corrupting attack on democracy.

It wasn’t enough that the towns would have reaped a harvest of tax revenues, lowering property taxes for all property owners. Some townspeople argued that property tax benefits would go mainly to those who owned a lot of property, meaning that the distribution of benefits would not be fair.

So the developer, Iberdrola Renewables, decided to hand out money to individual residents in the form of annual payments. Permanent residents in Windham would receive $1,162 annually; residents of Grafton would receive $428.

The developers offer many good arguments for their project. The landowners say it would allow them to keep the land open and sustainably maintained rather than succumbing to economic pressures forcing them to sell off parcels or develop it in other ways. Also, they offer assurances that the project will be carried out so it does not create noise problems or visual blight. They have reduced the number of turbines from 28 to 24 in order to diminish the impact. The importance of creating sustainable energy is undeniable, and wind power is sure to have a growing role around the globe in helping to slow the advance of climate change.

Nevertheless, wind power has proven to be increasingly divisive in Vermont because of the impact of large turbines on fragile upland ecosystems and the opposition of nearby residents. It is an issue that deserves serious, thoughtful debate within communities and at the state level. But how can anyone have confidence in the integrity of the debate when voters in a community have been offered an annual payment? Iberdrola might have won the debate fair and square. But it has blown it. A project with many potential benefits for the community and for the environment has now suffered a fatal taint. Supporters of renewable energy ought to look with grave reservations at the precedent that Iberdrola is trying to establish. The push for renewable energy will be seriously compromised if developers come to believe they can win votes by buying them.

Wind developers have sought to forestall opposition by promising that they would not proceed without the backing of local communities. Thus, Green Mountain Power developed its wind project in Lowell after voters in Lowell approved it.

Surrounding towns were not so enthusiastic, but they had no say. Wind skeptics noted that payments to the town of Lowell had the effect of significantly lowering the town’s tax rates, so that Lowell residents, in voting for the project, were not exactly a disinterested party. Individual citizens were not receiving a bribe, but they were enjoying an economic benefit that helped to sway local opinion. Actually promising to pay individual citizens who have the power to vote yea or nay on a project goes a step too far. Whatever the benefits to the environment that the project might have brought with it, it now threatens to undermine the state’s regulatory process and the electoral process of two towns.

The developer says that, in offering individual payments, it was responding to people in the community and their desire to spread economic benefits fairly among townspeople. That is not a persuasive argument. Just because townspeople are willing to spell out how they can be bought doesn’t diminish the corrupting influence of the bribe.

Democratic processes across the land are being flooded with money, and it undermines the confidence of the electorate when they have no way of knowing whether the voters’ decision is the fruit of a serious deliberative process or a response to money dangled before them. The bribe offered by Iberdrola to the people of Windham and Grafton ought to be reason alone for them to reject the project.