Regional planning commissioners Wednesday night voted against a seven-turbine wind power project in Swanton.
The wind farm would have a combined generating capacity of 20 megawatts and stand at least 400 feet tall.
The Northwest Regional Planning Commission made the decision after a long discussion with its attorney, said executive director Catherine Dimitruk.
The attorney told commissioners they should not disclose their reasons for turning down the project, Dimitruk said. The discussion was held behind closed doors in an executive session, because public deliberations could “prematurely disadvantage” the commission as the application process moves forward, she said.
In a press release, the commission said the project “did not conform to the 2015 regional plan in several areas including natural resources, aesthetics and orderly development of the region.”
Landowners Travis and Ashley Belisle, who are leading the Swanton Wind project, said they are “confused and disappointed” by the commission’s vote.
“The facts carefully gathered by Swanton Wind’s team of experts demonstrate a well-sited project that will meet Vermont’s environmental and aesthetic standards while contributing to the state’s clean energy economy, contributing substantial annual payments to local and state governments, and reducing climate change pollution,” Travis Belisle wrote by email. “In light of these facts, it is hard not to conclude that the commission’s decision results from heavy political pressure mounted by aggressive anti-renewable groups.”
The commission’s concern over aesthetics is confusing, he said. At a packed, four-hour Public Service Board workshop in Swanton recently, not a single question was posed about the impact of the turbines on the natural beauty of the ridge where the turbines would be sited.
“Our hilltop is no Camel’s Hump,” Belisle wrote, “and our wind turbines will look much better than the communications towers and Federal Aviation dome that cover nearby hilltops.”
The project is being spearheaded by Belisle and his family, who live and plan to remain on the land where the turbines are to be erected. They currently operate a maple sugaring operation on the 250-acre property.
A law enacted last year, Act 174, allows towns and regional planning commissions to plan where renewable energy projects should go. Under the law, the Public Service Board must defer to town and regional plans.
Although the Northwest Regional Planning Commission is among the first to write an energy plan under the new state statute, the law will not apply to this case because the Northwest energy plan has not yet been finalized.
That means instead of “substantial deference,” the regional planning commission’s vote will be given “due consideration” by the Public Service Board as it considers whether to give the project a permit.
More specifically, state law requires that in order to issue a permit, the board must find that the project “will not unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region, with due consideration having been given to the recommendations of the municipal and regional planning commissions, the recommendations of the municipal legislative bodies, and the land conservation measures contained in the plan of any affected municipality.”
This consideration is meant to be “advisory rather than controlling,” according to a recent precedent set by the Vermont Supreme Court.
The Swanton Wind project would generate 20 megawatts and could power about 7,350 average Vermont homes, according to documents provided by Swanton Wind.
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