WINDHAM—In 2012, the Vermont Public Service Department argued that meteorological-testing (MET) towers should not be installed in town because they were “wholly contrary” to town regulations.
Three years later, those testing towers are in place, and a developer is making controversial plans for Vermont’s biggest wind-turbine facility on the site.
And when those plans are submitted for state review, it appears the department — now under the leadership of Commissioner Chris Recchia — won’t be deferring so wholeheartedly to Windham’s prohibition against big turbines.
In a recent interview, Recchia said Iberdrola Renewables’ proposal will be reviewed with the big picture in mind — a picture that includes the state’s vision of a “successful, stable, renewable-energy future.”
“From our standpoint, we will evaluate this in the context of what’s in the public good and the benefit of Vermonters as a whole,” Recchia said.
“Local input will be important in that evaluation,” he said. “It’s not the be-all and end-all. But it’s important.”
Recchia also was careful to say, however, that he was not yet taking a position on the proposed project, which would straddle the towns of Windham and Grafton in Stiles Brook, a 5,000-acre forested tract.
“I don’t know whether the Windham/Grafton project is a good project or bad project or will ultimately get permitted, but I do think that it’s good that the town is having discussions based on a real proposal that’s in front of them and information that Iberdrola is providing,” Recchia said. “And we’ll see how that resolves.”
DPS supported town wind ban; PSB disagreed
Iberdrola and New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd., which owns and manages Stiles Brook, have been working toward what would be Windham County’s first commercial turbines.
The companies introduced preliminary details at October meetings in both towns: The current plan is for 28 turbines producing 96.6 megawatts, larger than any other Vermont wind installation.
The proposal has spurred strong feelings on both sides: There are websites promoting (www.stilesbrookforest.com) and opposing (graftonwindhamwind.org) the project, and there are dueling offices in Grafton — one established by Meadowsend, and the other operated by an opposition nonprofit called Grafton Woodlands Group.
The bulk of the project — 20 turbines, as the design now stands — would be situated in Windham, where officials have cited their town plan in protesting against such a facility. That argument seemed to be gaining traction at the state level in 2012, when Iberdrola first sought permission to erect meteorological-testing towers at Stiles Brook.
At the time, the state Public Service Department advised against a certificate of public good for those towers.
Department officials argued that “the Windham town plan contains two provisions that, when read together, clearly prohibit development of commercial wind turbines within the town,” and they said the state Public Service Board should consider the town’s regulations “dispositive” and reject Iberdrola’s application.
Then-Public Service Department Commissioner Elizabeth Miller cited the clarity of Windham’s plan as one reason for her agency’s stance.
“This is a town that has gone through the process in 2007 and 2008 of adopting a plan at a time when commercial wind development was a matter of significant discussion,” Miller reportedly said in 2012. “They did not take that portion of the plan lightly.”
The Public Service Board, however, ultimately approved the MET towers in late 2012.
The board, a quasi-judicial body that supervises public utilities in Vermont, decided that Windham didn’t specifically ban testing towers and, “given the minimal impacts of these towers, there is simply no basis to conclude that the project will interfere with the orderly development of the town of Windham, much less unduly interfere with the orderly development of the region as a whole.”
Windham officials have not forgotten the Public Service Department’s support. In fact, the department’s 2012 decision is quoted within Windham’s updated, 2014 town plan, which strengthens the town’s stance against big wind development.
During a recent visit to Brattleboro, Recchia — who took over the Public Service Department in 2013 — said he is aware of the town’s formal opposition to commercial wind power. He’s also well aware that Vermont has set a goal of 90 percent renewable-energy usage by 2050.
“I think it’s important for people to recognize where their power has come from in the past and where it needs to come from in the future, and that we all need to contribute to that successful, stable, renewable-energy future that I think most Vermonters still want,” Recchia said.
“My hope is that communities will find a way to evaluate projects and weigh in constructively on them. That said, you can’t always say, ’Yes, I want this, but it should be somewhere else,’” Recchia said.
“At some point, if you want to be able to turn the light switch on at the wall, you’ve got to recognize that this is going to come from our own [energy-production] efforts,” he said.
Recchia noted that Iberdrola has not yet applied to the Public Service Board for a CPG, so his department has not officially weighed in. But he said he is glad that the developer is interacting with local residents.
“I think Iberdrola is doing the right thing in terms of reaching out to the community and providing information to them,” Recchia said. “Whether that information is persuasive or not, obviously we’ll find out when we proceed through the Public Service Board process — if and when we proceed through the Public Service Board process.”
In a similar vein, Recchia also responded to recent criticisms by state Sen. Joe Benning, R-Caledonia.
Benning, the Senate Minority Leader, traveled in November to an anti-wind meeting in Grafton and said town concerns are being “swept aside” by the state’s renewable-energy goals.
Recchia called that viewpoint “a bit extreme,” and he said his department has been working with several regional planning commissions to better prepare for energy development.
“We do consider local concerns. We consider local input,” Recchia said. “But it’s got to be more than just saying no. It’s got to be more than reaction to a specific proposal, and that’s where planning comes in. I do believe that good, advance planning has a role here that will help correct some of these problems.”
A town and its plan
Windham officials, of course, will point to their revamped town plan. In that document, available at windhamvt.info, they do more than list the energy developments that have been banned by the town.
The plan’s overall goal is to “encourage the efficient use and conservation of energy in all categories (including transportation, heating and electricity) and the appropriate siting and development of appropriate renewable energy resources.”
Along with the plan’s emphasis on conservation, the town encourages “individual and group net-metered and off-grid renewable-energy projects, community-based projects and small-scale systems serving individual users in appropriate, context-sensitive locations.” Examples could include wind, solar, biomass, micro hydro, and geothermal, officials write, but all must be “at a scale that is sustainable.”
Additionally, the town supports “in-place upgrades, as opposed to new construction, of existing facilities including transmission lines, distribution lines and substations as needed to serve the town and region.”
There is no mistaking, however, town officials’ skepticism about wind power and about the state’s pursuit of renewable energy.
In reference to Vermont’s energy plan, Windham officials pledge their cooperation but also note that it is “far from clear that these goals are either attainable or advisable.”
And the town is unequivocal in its continued opposition to large turbines.
“Windham has been studying commercial/industrial wind generation since 2004,” officials wrote. “Our 2008 town plan, re-adopted in 2013, contains a prohibition against this form of development based on the unique topography and settlement patterns of our town, our 10 years of research and knowledge and the support of the majority of our residents and property owners.”
“It is not our intention to address any particular landowner or project, but rather to extend and strengthen our published policy, which declares commercial/industrial-scale wind development inappropriate for Windham for a variety of reasons,” the latest town plan says.
“In addition to our unique relationship of settlement and topography, those include but are not limited to the town’s statutory responsibilities under the law to protect and preserve the health and welfare of residents and property owners, the preservation of the unique aspects of our natural environment as well as the quality of life and the values, both material and social, that have characterized our town for more than 215 years.”