In Windham, state will look beyond local wind ban
WINDHAM >> In 2012, the Vermont Public Service Department argued that meteorological-testing towers should not be installed in Windham because they were "wholly contrary" to town regulations.
Three years later, those testing towers are in place and a developer is making controversial plans for Vermont's biggest wind-turbine facility on the site. And when those plans are submitted for state review, it appears the department won't be deferring so whole-heartedly to Windham's prohibition against big turbines.
In a recent interview, Recchia said Iberdrola Renewables' proposal will be reviewed with the big picture in mind – a picture that includes the state's vision of a "successful, stable, renewable-energy future."
"From our standpoint, we will evaluate this in the context of what's in the public good and the benefit of Vermonters as a whole," Recchia said. "Local input will be important in that evaluation. It's not the be-all and end-all. But it's important."
Iberdrola and New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd, which owns and manages a 5,000 acre forested tract called Stiles Brook, want to install Windham County's first commercial turbines.
The 28 turbine project would straddle two towns — Windham and Grafton — and produce 96.6 megawatts.
Recchia was careful to say, however, that he was not yet taking a position on the proposed project.
"I don't know whether the Windham/Grafton project is a good project or bad project or will ultimately get permitted, but I do think that it's good that the town is having discussions based on a real proposal that's in front of them and information that Iberdrola is providing," Recchia said. "And we'll see how that should resolve."
Iberdrola is aiming for construction in 2019 if the company obtains the proper permits. The company recently withdrew the Stiles Brook application with grid operator ISO New England, but an Iberdrola spokesman said that is a procedural matter; he said the company would soon reapply, and he did not expect the project to be delayed.
The proposal has spurred strong feelings on both sides: There are websites promoting (www.stilesbrookforest.com) and opposing (graftonwindhamwind.org) the project, and there are dueling offices in Grafton – one established by Meadowsend, the other operated by an opposition nonprofit called Grafton Woodlands Group.
The bulk of the project – 20 turbines, as the design now stands – would be situated in Windham, where officials have cited their town plan in protesting against such a facility. That argument seemed to be gaining traction at the state level in 2012, when Iberdrola first sought permission to erect meteorological-testing towers at Stiles Brook.
At the time, the state Public Service Department advised against a certificate of public good for the towers.
Then-Public Service Department Commissioner Elizabeth Miller cited the clarity of Windham's plan as one reason for her agency's stance. "This is a town that has gone through the process in 2007 and 2008 of adopting a plan at a time when commercial wind development was a matter of significant discussion," Miller said in 2012. "They did not take that portion of the plan lightly."
The Public Service Board, however, ultimately approved the MET towers in late 2012. The board decided that Windham didn't specifically ban testing towers and, "given the minimal impacts of these towers, there is simply no basis to conclude that the project will interfere with the orderly development of the town of Windham."
Windham officials have not forgotten the Public Service Department's support. In fact, the department's 2012 decision is quoted in Windham's updated, 2014 town plan, which strengthens the town's stance against big wind development.
During a recent visit to Brattleboro, Recchia, who took over the Public Service Department in 2013, said he is aware of Windham's opposition to commercial wind power. He's also well aware that Vermont has set a goal of 90 percent renewable-energy usage by 2050.
"I think it's important for people to recognize where their power has come from in the past and where it needs to come from in the future, and that we all need to contribute to that successful, stable, renewable-energy future that I think most Vermonters still want," Recchia said.
"My hope is that communities will find a way to evaluate projects and weigh in constructively on them. That said, you can't always say, 'Yes, I want this, but it should be somewhere else,'" Recchia said. "At some point, if you want to be able to turn the light switch on at the wall, you've got to recognize that this is going to come from our own (energy-production) efforts."
Recchia said Iberdrola has not yet applied to the Public Service Board for a state certificate of public good, so his department has not officially weighed in. But he said he is glad that the developer is interacting with local residents.
"I think Iberdrola is doing the right thing in terms of reaching out to the community and providing information to them," Recchia said. "Whether that information is persuasive or not, obviously we'll find out when we proceed through the Public Service Board process – if and when we proceed through the Public Service Board process."
In a similar vein, Recchia also responded to recent criticisms by state Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia. Benning, the Senate minority leader, traveled earlier this month to an anti-wind meeting in Grafton and said town concerns are being "swept aside" by the state's renewable-energy goals.
Recchia called that viewpoint "a bit extreme," and he said his department has been working with several regional planning commissions to better prepare for energy development.
"We do consider local concerns. We consider local input," Recchia said. "But it's got to be more than just saying no. It's got to be more than reaction to a specific proposal, and that's where planning comes in. I do believe that good, advance planning has a role here that will help correct some of these problems."
Windham officials, of course, will point to their revamped town plan. In that document, available at windhamvt.info, they do more than list the energy developments that have been banned by the town.
The plan's overall goal is to "encourage the efficient use and conservation of energy in all categories (including transportation, heating and electricity) and the appropriate siting and development of appropriate renewable energy resources."
There is no mistaking, however, town officials' skepticism about wind power and about the state's pursuit of renewable energy. In reference to Vermont's energy plan, Windham officials pledge their cooperation but also note that it is "far from clear that these goals are either attainable or advisable."
And the town is unequivocal in its continued opposition to large turbines.
"Windham has been studying commercial/industrial wind generation since 2004," officials wrote. "Our 2008 town plan, re-adopted in 2013, contains a prohibition against this form of development based on the unique topography and settlement patterns of our town, our 10 years of research and knowledge and the support of the majority of our residents and property owners."
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