GRAFTON—Two weeks after a developer came to town to disclose details of what could be Vermont’s biggest wind-turbine site, the project’s opponents presented an impassioned case against building any windmills in Stiles Brook Forest.
The tone of the two gatherings could not have been more different.
While developer Iberdrola Renewables on Oct. 26 touted a relatively low-impact, renewable-energy facility that could pour $1 million annually into the combined coffers of Windham and Grafton, those who are concerned about the proposal painted a picture of depressed property values, health concerns, and meager financial returns at a Nov. 9 meeting.
Joining those opponents was a prominent opponent of large-scale wind power, state Sen. Joe Benning. The Lyndonville Republican urged Grafton and Windham residents to unite against the project, and he was sharply critical of a state permitting process that, he claims, is weighted too heavily toward meeting Vermont’s renewable-energy goals.
“Anything that stands in the way of that is going to get swept aside,” Benning said.
Since 2012, Iberdrola and Stiles Brook owner Meadowsend Timberlands have been collaborating to study the wind resources on a 5,000-acre tract situated mostly in Windham and Grafton. Last month, Iberdrola announced specifics of its plans.
A preliminary layout shows 20 turbines in Windham and another eight in Grafton, with the site generating 96.6 megawatts of electricity. Based on that design, Iberdrola estimated that the project would generate yearly tax revenues of $715,000 in Windham and $285,000 in Grafton along with $700,000 for the state’s education fund.
In addition to holding community meetings and opening an office in Grafton, the project’s backers have set up a website, www.stilesbrookforest.com. But there has been organized opposition. Windham officials have argued that their town plan prohibits such development, and the nonprofit Grafton Woodlands Group has established its own storefront from which to protest the project and its own website, graftonwindhamwind.org.
On Nov. 9, residents packed into the Phelps Barn for a Grafton Woodlands Group meeting that opened with Benning declaring he is not against renewable-energy generation. “But it should be appropriately placed, and it should only be used at an industrial level if, in fact, it is necessary,” he said.
“This is not a free-for-all, Wild West opportunity for any person or entity to come into the state and take over our natural resources for their personal gain,” Benning told the crowd. “If it is going to be done legitimately, I would argue it should be done small-scale, it should be concentrated in those places that absolutely need it, and it should be done in locations which are close to the load, meaning it is close to those who are actually going to use it.”
Both Benning and another speaker, former state Agriculture Secretary Roger Allbee, said they favored use of Act 250 land-use permitting for wind installations rather than the more fast-tracked Act 248 process.
“The Act 250 process, which is time-tested, is not being used anymore for energy siting,” said Allbee, a resident of neighboring Townshend. “We don’t have a process for reasonable consideration of the impact on our communities or our countryside.”
Benning said Vermont’s current energy-siting process belittles local concerns.
“As much as you fight as a town, the Public Service Board is going to listen,” Benning said. “But if this is renewable energy, and the state’s overall objective is to have 90 percent renewable energy (by 2050) ... the Public Service Board is going to say, ‘It’s going toward our state’s objectives, so, town, nice to hear from you, goodbye.’”
The crowd heard similar sentiments in prepared statements from Montpelier resident Tom Slayton, former editor of Vermont Life; and Peter Galbraith, a former Windham County senator and Townshend resident. Galbraith reiterated that he is exploring a gubernatorial run “in large part because of my concern about what is happening to communities like ours” in regards to energy siting.
“I am the only Democratic candidate – actual or potential – who says that industrial-scale wind projects do not belong on Vermont’s ridgelines,” Galbraith’s statement said.
In defense of its plans, Iberdrola has said the project will result in relatively little alteration of Stiles Brook Forest. And in a set of newly released, written answers to community questions, company administrators responded this way when asked whether they would be “open to an assessment by an independent agency on the impact of wind turbine development”:
“Review by independent agencies is a critical part of any project proposal in Vermont,” the company’s statement says. “A site evaluation will be performed by multiple expert consultants in various fields of study on behalf of the project. This information is then evaluated by independent state and federal agencies.”
Iberdrola also cited the very same permitting process that Benning criticized. “In addition, the Vermont Public Service Board, which is an independent agency, will also review all project information in determining whether to issue the project a certificate of public good,” the company’s statement says.
Other concerns at the Nov. 9 meeting included health and finances.
On the economic front, Grafton Woodlands Group hired a certified public accountant to examine the hypothetical addition of $285,000 in new tax revenues to Grafton. If all of that money was used to provide tax relief, the group found maximum tax-bill savings of $180 per year for a property valued at $100,000; $359 per year for a $200,000 property; and $539 per year for a $300,000 property.
Iberdrola, in responding to a question about specific tax savings, said it would give Grafton a lump-sum, annual payment. “At this point, without knowing how the town of Grafton would choose to spend its money – i.e. put it towards lowering municipal tax rates or some other use – we cannot say what impact the payments would have on individual property taxes,” the company’s statement says.
While not disputing potential tax savings, Grafton Woodlands Group contends those would be more than offset by a dip in property values due to wind-turbine construction nearby. “It’s not possible for any of us to recoup our property’s lost value in the time that project will be paying into town coffers,” said Anna Vesely, a Grafton Woodlands Group director. “It’s a lose-lose proposition.”
Iberdrola’s written statement counters that by citing two studies by the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory “as well as a number of other academic and published U.S. studies, which also generally find no measurable (property value) impacts near operating turbines.”
Financial issues aside, some associate turbines with health concerns. Two neighbors of the Hoosac Wind Power Project – 19-turbine, Iberdrola-operated facility in northwestern Massachusetts – told meeting attendees that low-frequency sound from those windmills has taken a toll on their lives.
“I wake up regularly from the noise,” Hoosac-area resident Larry Lorusso said. “It’s the vibration. You can feel these things.”
Lorusso said he was diagnosed with lymphoma in May. While not making a direct connection between the turbines’ “infrasound” and that illness, Lorusso said he knows that his body has been weakened by Iberdrola’s wind turbines, which he dubbed “the neighbors from hell.”
The connection between infrasound and illness is controversial. Last year, a Massachusetts Institute of Technology review of research on wind turbines’ health effects concluded that “neither low-frequency sound nor infrasound in the context of wind turbines or in experimental studies has been associated with adverse health effects.”
Iberdrola’s written statement asserts that “all of the credible peer-reviewed scientific data and various government reports ... have refuted the claim that wind farms cause negative health impacts. Currently, hundreds of thousands of people live and work near operating wind farms without any health effects.”