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Windham agrees to vote on state's largest wind project

Nov. 8 ballot to gauge support for 28-turbine proposal

WINDHAM—The stage is set for a vote that could have big implications for the town of Windham’s landscape and for the wind industry in Vermont.

Windham Selectboard has authorized a Nov. 8 Australian Ballot vote to determine whether residents support construction of the 28-turbine Stiles Brook Wind Project, which would be the state’s largest wind power site.

While Vermont towns don’t have statutory veto power over such projects, Stiles Brook developer Iberdrola Renewables says it won’t move forward if residents in Windham and neighboring Grafton reject the proposal via Australian Ballot votes.

Grafton officials haven’t yet decided whether to allow such a vote, instead laying the groundwork for a survey of registered voters and taxpayers in the town. But Windham Selectboard Chairman Frank Seawright — who is an outspoken opponent of the Stiles Brook project — said residents in his town will have their say via a formal, legal ballot.

“[Iberdrola administrators] have repeatedly committed themselves to abiding by the outcome of the vote,” Seawright said. “So, let’s find out how people stand on it.”

Iberdrola last year disclosed plans to build 20 turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton. All would be located in Stiles Brook Forest, a 5,000 acre tract owned by New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd.

Proponents say the renewable energy project would, in addition to its environmental benefits, pump a total of $1 million into the two towns’ coffers annually. But there has been vehement opposition by those who raise concerns about the project’s potential impacts on the environment, property values, and human health.

Iberdrola disputes such arguments, saying critics are relying on “false claims.”

Wind power projects are permitted by the state Public Service Board. But Iberdrola has said it won’t even apply to the board without affirmation by legal residents in both towns, as long as those votes are “fair,” and conducted via Australian Ballot.

As with everything related to Stiles Brook, the vote debate has been drawn out and controversial. Second-homeowners have demanded a say but can’t participate in a legal vote, and some Windham and Grafton residents have questioned whether the towns should vote at all.

In Windham, officials have decided that residents will weigh this question on Nov. 8: “Shall the registered voters of the town of Windham support development of the Stiles Brook Wind Project, as proposed by Iberdrola Renewables, to be located in the Stiles Brook Forest, owned by Meadowsend Timberlands, Ltd.?”

There was a special town meeting Aug. 3 to permit an Australian Ballot vote on the matter. And Selectboard members on Aug. 16 endorsed the phrasing of the ballot question — wording that is identical to that proposed by Iberdrola.

Seawright said Selectboard members “looked at it and thought about it” and decided the wording was fair.

But he said he has no idea how the vote might turn out. “We have behaved responsibly,” Seawright said of Stiles Brook opponents in the town. “We’ve educated ourselves on the issues and spent a lot of time on it.”

He also offered this caution: “Everybody should know that an uninformed or misinformed vote counts as much as a well-informed vote.”

In a letter to Windham, Iberdrola administrator Jenny Briot applauded the town’s decision to have an Australian Ballot vote on the issue. “We appreciate the town taking steps to allow all of its registered voters to weigh in directly on this project and its potential benefits to the community,” Briot said.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #371 (Wednesday, August 24, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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