SWANTON – The Planning Commission held a public hearing regarding proposed revisions to the municipal energy plan at the Village Municipal Complex Wednesday night, the final step before the language is passed on to the Town Selectboard for approval.
The hearing lasted less than an hour. It served mostly as a chance for those at the center of the local wind power debate to fire parting shots before verbiage heatedly debated for months is effectively put to bed.
No previously unheard members of the public stepped forward to comment on the language in the plan. Village Manager Reg Beliveau approved of it. He said the revisions are an attempt to make Swanton more appealing to businesses.
“I understand the Belisles’ position, what they’re trying to do with their own properties,” he said. But he also expressed concern, drawing from his experience managing Swanton’s hydropower facilities. “Because of these large-scale renewable energy projects that are out there, we’re told to curtail running,” he said. “So then we have to buy out on the open market at higher prices.”
That was the extent of neutral language at the hearing, save for diplomatic comments from Planning Commission Chair Jim Hubbard as the meeting’s moderator.
The rest of the discussion was predominately a back-and-forth between Swanton Wind attorney Anthony Iarrapino and the project’s most outspoken local opponents, Dustin and Christine Lang. Both Iarrapino and Christine pointed out the Planning Commission had “heard all this.”
Tempering matters even further, Hubbard described the town’s revised municipal energy plan as an “11th hour” initiative that will have no effect on Swanton Wind, since the Public Service Board – which has the final say in whether the project moves forward – has already begun its review process.
“Personally, I wish you well in your endeavor, whether it goes forward or not, as businesspeople in this community,” Hubbard told the Belisles. “I wish you utmost success, and let the powers be decide it.”
Swanton Wind’s representatives were not so benign. Despite the plan’s ultimate powerlessness in influencing the project, Iarrapino expressed concern that the plan set a dangerous precedent for future local business. He said Swanton’s local government “is unfairly targeting local private property owners.”
“If the draft is any indication, the Town of Swanton has started down a very slippery slope,” he said.
Iarrapino put his clients’ objections to the revisions on the record. There were many – as Iarrapino put it, “too many instances where fear won out over facts.” He said he hoped the commission would note a lack of complaints from those living around similar projects in Georgia, Milton and Lowell, citing several magazine articles on the town’s booming economies without any mention of the wind projects or their adverse effects.
He noted the project could bring an estimated $4 million in wages mostly to Franklin County workers. He stressed the importance of adapting to fight climate change, which he said is a far greater threat to wildlife than wind turbines, noting that even the Audubon Society supports wind power.
But mostly, he took reiterated arguments against several assertions within the plan, such as the turbines will cause large bird fatalities. “Wind projects in North America are responsible for 0.1 percent – 0.1 percent – of human caused bird fatalities,” he said, whereas household cats accounted for 1.4-3.7 million bird deaths.
“Given the emphasis you all have placed on bird fatalities, I hope you will include standards in the Swanton Town Plan that will include and guide prohibition of the town’s outdoor cats in the future.”
He also disputed claims the turbines would interrupt an important flyway and strike down geese, noting geese are considered wildly overpopulated in Vermont now, and that hunters are currently allowed to kill eight per day.
“I don’t agree with all of your views,” Hubbard responded. “I don’t want to pick it apart. It was well presented… Some of the testimonies I’ve received over the past year disagree with some of your comments.”
Dustin Lang said earlier that day, “Bird Diva” on Vermont Public Radio had discussed going up French Hill, in St. Albans, and watching hawks migrate. Lang said raptors have the highest incidences of collisions with wind turbines.
He also took issue with the project’s agreement with the Department of Fish & Wildlife to apply better management practices to a deeryard on the site, improving deer habitat. “The deer go to a deer yard in the winter for shallow snow to escape predators,” Lang said. “They’re under a lot of pressure.” He said the introduction of turbine sound and a flashing red light would disrupt those efforts. Iarrapino retorted that Fish & Wildlife had done “such a good job we’re overrun with deer.”
“I think we have to rely on the experts regarding what’s good for deer,” he said.
Christine said they see hawks near the project’s proposed site all the time. Iarrapino said independent scientists had been “hundreds of hours” studying birds near turbine sites and seen no raptor fatalities. “Just because birds are there where wind turbines are doesn’t mean they’ll be flying into the blades,” he said.
Christine reiterated reports from homeowners in Georgia and Milton who say they are disturbed by the turbines’ noise and that their property values have decreased. She also said the project’s Renewable Energy Credits (RECs) will most likely be sold out of state, therefore not benefitting the state’s renewable energy goals.
Hubbard closed the meeting with the weary statement, “In my 20 years on the commission, this is the toughest thing I’ve been involved in.”