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Voters to weigh in on wind turbines

Nonresident taxpayers ask for a say, but Vermont law won’t allow them to participate in a legally binding vote

GRAFTON—A group of nonresident taxpayers — i.e., those who own second homes — want a bigger say in whether Vermont’s largest wind-turbine project moves forward.

It seems clear that those property owners, under Vermont law, are not entitled to participate in a legally binding vote because they do not technically live in Grafton.

But some argue that all taxpayers — whether residents or nonresidents — should be able to participate in some sort of referendum on the proposed project. The results, according to a written request submitted to the Grafton Selectboard, should serve as “the formal and only position of the town of Grafton on the matter.”

“The way things stand now, we have no voice in whether this project happens or not, and we feel that’s an injustice,” said Jud Hartmann, a property owner and nonresident who presented the concept to the Selectboard on Jan. 18. “So, this is the beginning of a process to have our voice included in the debate.”

Developer Iberdrola Renewables has drawn up plans for Windham County’s first commercial wind turbines in the 5,000-acre Stiles Brook Forest, which straddles the towns of Windham and Grafton. A preliminary proposal calls for 28 turbines generating up to 96.6 megawatts of power, and that would make the site Vermont’s biggest and most powerful wind-energy installation.

Iberdrola presented its detailed plans for the first time at public forums in late October. But the company has not yet applied for a certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board.

There are strong feelings both for and against the project in both towns. Advocates cite the turbines’ renewable energy generation and the towns’ projected tax revenues from the site, while detractors worry about potentially detrimental impacts on the ridge, property values. and residents’ health.

Iberdrola administrators have said they want support in both towns before proceeding. In a mailing in late 2015, they wrote that “after a vote on a completed project proposal by the registered voters in Windham and Grafton, Iberdrola Renewables will respect the outcome of that vote.”

But some say it’s not enough to consider only the opinions of “registered voters.” Hartmann, who lists a Main Street address, told the Grafton Selectboard that “the phrase ‘taxation without representation’ comes to mind” if nonresident property owners are left out.

He presented a petition carrying the names of 35 property owners along with a letter asserting that “all members of the Grafton community should be polled to determine the town’s position.”

In order to do that, the letter pitches a referendum that would include all registered voters as well as all taxpayers. If a property is “jointly held,” the document suggests, “all property holders would be entitled to vote.”

That touched off a debate at the meeting. Some, including Selectboard Chairman Sam Battaglino, were supportive of the idea.

“I think the second-homeowners should have a say. I think their position should be known,” Battaglino said. “I mean, some of these people have been here for generations. I think it’s factually correct that they do pay about 60 percent of Grafton’s taxes.”

“This is the biggest (wind) project in Vermont at this time, and it’s certainly the biggest project in Grafton’s history,” he added. “We might never have a project as big as this.”

Selectboard member Ron Pilette said nonresident taxpayers “should have a voice — the question is how to do it [in a way] that’s legal and acceptable to the extent that it can be acceptable to all of us.”

That’s what troubled others at the meeting. Some worried about setting a precedent for allowing nonresidents to vote on town affairs, and Town Administrator Rachel Williams said she didn’t see any way to allow nonresidents to participate such a vote.

“Statutory law says it has to be done by registered voters,” Williams said at the meeting. “There is no other legal way to go around that.”

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns seconded that, with Executive Director Maura Carroll telling The Commons in an email that “there is no provision in the [state] statutes or constitution allowing nonresidents to participate in a legally binding vote of the town.”

The question, then, seems to be whether the Grafton polling could happen in some other way. The nonresidents’ letter to the Selectboard claimed that “there are clear precedents in Vermont for organizing such a referendum,” citing wind-turbine referendums that included nonresident taxpayers in towns including Brighton, Londonderry, and Newark.

It’s not clear, though, whether some of those votes could be classified in that way. In Brighton, for instance, Town Clerk Teresa Potwin said officials in 2012 asked for opinions on a proposed turbine project via a mailing.

“We had a poll that had no legal authority,” Potwin said.

And in Newark, Town Clerk Joan Bicknell said voters in 2011 decided to amend the town plan in response to a turbine proposal. While nonresidents were allowed to participate in the debate about the project, they did not vote, Bicknell said.

That’s not to say Grafton couldn’t fashion its own solution to the representation problem. Battaglino asked those in attendance at the Jan. 18 meeting to allow the Selectboard to “do the research before we jump to any conclusions.”

Liisa Kissel, a turbine opponent and a director of the nonprofit Grafton Woodlands Group, said the nonresidents’ letter should not be viewed as a formal petition.

“I think you have to look at this as a request from this group of people who are otherwise voiceless in the town,” Kissel said. “They are asking for the town to find a way.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #341 (Wednesday, January 27, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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