Couple Battles VELCO's Plans For Tower On Mountaintop
01/04/11 7:50AM By John Dillon
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(Host) A remote mountaintop in southwest Vermont is the center of a fight between a pair of immigrant artists and Vermont's electric transmission utility.
The Vermont Electric Power Company wants to build an 80-foot radio tower on the site as part of a statewide communications network. But the artists say that the tower will ruin their plans for an art school on the property.
VPR's John Dillon has more:
(Felix Kniazev) "This is our little drawing room here, where we do little sketches and draw."
(Dillon) Ascending the circular stairs of this mountaintop home is a bit like climbing up the inside of a lighthouse. You go up and around and then emerge to a 360 degree view. But instead of waves crashing below, you see mountain ridges stretching to the horizon.
(Kniazev) Every hour or every minute is different because of the clouds and sun reflecting on the clouds. It gives you different shadows of the mountains and the trees.
(Dillon) Felix Kniazev is originally from Russia. He and his wife Olga Julinska are painters and ceramic artists based in Boston.
But their work allows them to live anywhere and three years ago they found this home on top of a 2,000-foot mountain in the tiny town of Wells southwest of Rutland. The house on Northeast Mountain was built by the son of a local businessman who included a six-story observation tower shaped like a silo. Olga says they fell in love with the place the first time they saw it.
(Julinska) "It looks a lot like Russia, for one thing. The forests, and just the weather, somehow it's just very close."
(Dillon) They first planned to use it as a summer residence, then establish an art school on the property.
The place needs some work. The observation room at the top of the tower is still unfinished. But to say the home is one of a kind is an understatement. How many living rooms let you look eye to eye with hawks soaring past in the open air?
(Kniazev) "Of course we live with the birds. You can see the eagle right there, circling around."
(Dillon) The couple hoped this literal bird's eye view would be inspiring for other artists as well. But their plans for an art school are on hold while they wage a legal fight with the Vermont Electric Power Company.
VELCO wants to upgrade an existing low-power commercial radio station's tower on the site that was used by the previous owner. The site is 60 feet from their home. But Felix and Olga say the taller tower, plus the nearby generator that would run 24 hours a day, would shatter the tranquility of their mountaintop retreat.
They say the noise would be intrusive. And they don't like the idea of VELCO's more powerful microwave antennas transmitting close to their young children and potential students.
(Julinska) "There are many, many things wrong with this project but that one's at the top of our list. So if the tower is built we would basically have to abandon this place. But the problem is this place is basically irreplaceable."
(Dillon) VELCO says the microwave radiation emitted by the facility would be well within safety limits. Yet the company didn't make a good first impression this fall when a drilling rig overturned near the artists' home. VELCO had dispatched the rig to bore test wells on the site. But as it neared the summit, the drive shaft broke and the rig hurtled down the mountain backwards. Felix was following behind with other workers and captured the horrifying moment on videotape.
(Rig Accident) "Oh! Go! Go back! No! Oh Please! No! What happened? Oh man. Call emergency, ‘cause he is lying down. Call emergency!"(Dillon) Miraculously, no one was seriously injured. A small spill of coolant and oil was quickly contained.
But the incident became a public relations black eye after the video aired on the local TV news. VELCO Vice President Kerrick Johnson said the company regrets the accident.
(Johnson) "Do I wish that had not happened? Yes. But there again I will tell you, that which was not on tape, was that we tried to make every accommodation to the landowners about what time of day we were going to do that, exactly what equipment was going to go on the property."
(Dillon) VELCO says the tower is needed for a statewide radio network that would be used by utility crews to respond to power outages around Vermont.
Johnson says VELCO needs to build the new emergency communications network because the federal government has re-assigned the existing frequencies.
(Johnson) "So we have to come up with a new system by 2013. Our criteria - what we felt was important to do in constructing this system - was to the degree possible make it available to all the utilities. Secondly, we thought it made the most sense to let's use wherever possible use existing sites."
(Dillon) Felix and Olga believe VELCO has not been completely forthcoming about the project. They say the tower is also a key piece of smart grid technology. Among its many uses, a smart grid electric distribution system can instantly respond to changes in customer demand.
The couple has dug into VELCO documents and say they've learned that the smart grid will rely on a wireless communication network. That network in turn, will need towers like the one in Wells. The couple believes VELCO is trying to build the smart grid in a piecemeal fashion through projects like the one in Wells. They argue that the entire smart grid network should be reviewed by regulators.
(Julinska) "The way VELCO represents this piece of this is under the umbrella of the statewide radio project. And it's probably part of the project, but it's not the entire story."
(Dillon) VELCO executive Kerrick Johnson says the facility in Wells could be used for the smart grid network, but he says that's not the main focus of the project.
(Johnson) "Are there other uses, either piecemeal or in a more general way that might be used? Maybe. Is that any plan that exists anywhere that has a grand scheme that says how this might be used beyond a radio network? Absolutely not."
(Dillon) The dispute has ended up in court. Felix Kniazev and Olga Julinska say the VELCO proposal violates an easement that allows an existing low-power radio tower on their property.
Johnson says VELCO is trying to work out a financial settlement. But he says the company will abandon the project if necessary.For VPR News, I'm John Dillon.