Kingdom Communities Debate Wind Projects

06/08/12 7:50AM By John Dillon
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VPR/John Dillon
A tour group at one of the 16 wind turbines at Sheffield.
Large wind energy projects are bringing needed revenue to the Northeast Kingdom but they're also dividing communities.

A tour of three wind projects in the Kingdom shows similar debates over tax benefits, environmental impacts, and the prospect of change to the region's rural landscape.

Before the towers and turbines arrive, ridgeline wind development is basically a mountaintop highway construction job.

That's the story in Lowell in Orleans County, where heavy equipment clears road and levels ground for Green Mountain Power's 21 turbines.

GMP says 200 people were employed during the peak of construction. One of them is Dana Spates of Spates Construction in Derby. He's putting up a steel building near a GMP substation.

"It's kind of small, but it's good," Spates says of the Lowell contract. "There aren't a lot of buildings going on right now in the area. So it's actually been a good project for us."

Spates has two or three people on the Lowell site. And GMP says a half-dozen workers will be needed to maintain the turbines once they're up. Utility spokeswoman Dorothy Schnure says the lasting economic impact of big wind development is not a big bump in employment.

"But long-term, the economic benefits really are in the lowest-priced renewable power available to us, and what we pay in taxes to the local community and to the state," she says.

Towns that host wind projects have negotiated lucrative payments from developers. In Lowell's case, GMP will kick in $535,000 annually in town taxes, and another $555,000 to the state education fund. Five neighboring communities will get much smaller payments, ranging from $10 to 65 thousand dollars.

But big wind also causes big divisions, as recurring protests in Lowell last fall showed. Debates over wind often pit neighbors against neighbor, those who see economic benefits versus those concerned about the environmental and aesthetic impact of ridgeline development.

That brings us to project number two in our Kingdom wind tour.

Eolian Renewable Energy of Portsmouth, New Hampshire hopes to erect 35 to 40 turbines in Newark, Brighton and several unincorporated towns and gores in Essex County.

Planning Commission Chairman Kim Fried says the town of 500 people is overwhelmed as it tries to assess the project's impact.

"What we're trying to do is understand a very complicated subject: the industrialization of Newark," he says..

The Eolian proposal has brought out familiar fault lines in the wind debate. Supporters talked about the tax benefits and what they said is the minimal impact of the turbines. Opponents said the construction will disrupt wildlife habitat and that the tall towers are out of character with the rural area. Resident Keith Ballek asked a question that seemed to be on the minds of many.

"There's obviously some kind of pattern here," he says. "Why the Northeast Kingdom? Is it we don't have the people to fight back? Why is it one region? I mean there's wind blowing in other parts of the state? 

Ballek's question brought a round of applause at the Newark meeting. But wind developers say they go where the wind resource is, which in Vermont means mountains. Other projects have been proposed for Rutland County and southern Vermont.

Yet the Eolian project in the Kingdom would be the state's largest. That's got people thinking about what makes the place unique - and what's at stake if dozens of 420 foot turbines are placed on the region's mountaintops.

Joel Cope has worked for 23 years as an administrative assistant for Brighton, which includes the village of Island Pond. The town used to be a railroad hub and manufacturing center. Some trains still run through Island Pond. But the Ethan Allen furniture closed its plant more than a decade ago. So the town has turned to tourism. Cope is worried about the 10 or 12 turbines planned for the town's ridgelines.

"I mean people who are coming here are coming here to hike trails and to go to remote places and to boat on the lake and to hunt and fish and these towers are not compatible with that, in my own view," Cope says. "It's not the town view, it's just my view as the person's whose been working on these kinds of things."

The regional planning agency for the Kingdom, the Northeastern Vermont Development Association, is also taking a second look at the wind issue. The NVDA board will consider a resolution later this month calling for a suspension of wind development while issues such as the impact on tourism and property values are studied.

Cope says the region is a net exporter of electricity, and doesn't need more power plants. 

"So to sacrifice the heart and soul of the Vermont landscape so we can ship power to somebody else to me is really a crazy idea," he says. "Why would you do that? And there's only one reason: money. Because they offer money."

But many in the Kingdom welcome the wind investment. You can hear that point of view in Sheffield, the last stop of our wind tour. Boston-based FirstWind started generating power from the 16 turbines last fall.

Jill Mathers came over from Newark to see firsthand what a wind project looks look like.

"I love it. I think it has to be part of the mix," she says. "And if it ends up in our backyards then, you know, it's our backyards turn."

Mathers doesn't think tourists will turn away from wind turbines.  

"You know, nobody stopped skiing Burke Mountain because they put a wind tower up," she says. "So I think that's a fallacy. That's an unproven type of thing that it's going to hurt our tourism."

Jim Norris of Lyndon also came for a tour of the Sheffield project. He owns a hunting camp nearby, and hopes that FirstWind's half a million dollar annual payment to the town will cut his property taxes.

"It hasn't showed up yet, but it only makes sense it should," he says. "That's what I was hoping it would do. And it's something we can use right here in the state, is the power."

But will the projects also affect property values? Paul Brouha of Sutton thinks they will. The Sheffield towers loom over his property, and Brouha - a retired fisheries biologist - has fought the Sheffield development for about a decade. He points to several neighboring properties that are on the market but haven't sold since the wind project went up.

"It's not just about the aesthetics. It's not just about me or the noise. I think it's about the larger context of the impact on our landscape and our environment up here," he says. "I really  believe we have a right to see Vermont's quality of life continued for future generations."

The developers say they're making electricity in the cleanest way possible. State regulators will ultimately weigh the cost and benefits and decide if each wind project is in the public good. But regulators can't address the sense of loss some in the Kingdom feel for the way the place used to be.

The Kingdom Comeback series concludes tomorrow with a look at a trail system that is opening up expanded recreational opportunities in the region.  

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