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Windham, developer clash on turbine talks

Officials demand Iberdrola stop work on wind proposal; Iberdrola calls town’s statements misleading

WINDHAM—A few weeks ago, a turbine developer requested that Windham town officials create an “independent and balanced committee” to discuss the controversial Stiles Brook Wind proposal.

But a war of words has ensued.

The town fired first, with two of three Selectboard members on June 20 approving a letter urging developer Iberdrola Renewables to “suspend your involvement with this project immediately” based on environmental and health concerns.

Iberdrola responded two days later with a sharply worded statement accusing Windham officials of subverting the democratic process with misleading information and “slanderous rhetoric.”

At this point, the back-and-forth doesn’t appear to jeopardize the scheduling of a townwide vote on the project later this year. But Windham Selectboard Chairman Frank Seawright said he’d rather there be no reason for that balloting.

“Unless something else happens, we will hold a vote,” Seawright said. “I’d hope that [Iberdrola] would decide to abandon the project before then, though.”

The debate over Iberdrola’s plan to build turbines in the 5,000-acre Stiles Brook Forest has been going strong for four years.

Iberdrola and property owner Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd. tout the project’s renewable-energy potential. With 28 turbines capable of generating 96.6 megawatts of power, it would be Vermont’s largest such site.

Proponents also have touted the project’s financial benefits for the proposed host towns of Windham and Grafton. Iberdrola administrator Jenny Briot, in a June 13 letter to the towns, reiterated that Windham stands to gain $715,000 annually, while Grafton would get $285,000.

In that same letter, Briot asked that Windham and Grafton create committees “to discuss the form and terms of Iberdrola’s potential agreement with each town related to the construction and operation of the Stiles Brook Project.”

The developer has pledged to honor the results of a vote on whether the project should proceed, and Briot said negotiations between town committees and Iberdrola could pave the way for that vote.

“A finalized set of terms for an agreement in advance ... will allow residents to make a well-informed choice and provide clarity for all parties on exactly what each community is voting on,” she wrote.

But there are no simple requests when it comes to the Stiles Brook project. Negotiating with Iberdrola has sparked vehement argument in Grafton, and Selectboard Chairman Al Sands said no decisions have been made.

Windham, on the other hand, acted quickly on Briot’s request. In the June 20 letter to Briot — signed by Seawright, Selectboard member Maureen Bell, and Planning Commission Chairman Bob Bingham — the town says Stiles Brook “is not appropriate for your proposed industrial wind installation.”

The letter points out that Windham’s town plan bans large wind turbines. It also details objections to Iberdrola’s plans due to the area’s topography and possible impacts on flooding, erosion, wildlife, and water quality.

For example, Windham officials worry that development on the ridgeline could increase flooding, particularly in light of heavier precipitation due to climate change.

“Your proposed project would require extensive blasting, bulldozing and impervious surfacing of the high-elevation Stiles Brook Forest, and is thus at odds with crucial flood-management initiatives and practices of the town, the region and the state,” the town’s letter says.

Windham’s letter also raises public health concerns. Iberdrola has said its preliminary studies show little sound and visual impact at Stiles Brook, but opponents remain skeptical.

“We are unwilling to subject any of our town’s property owners to the unknown short- and long-term effects of exposure to turbine noise, vibration, infrasound and shadow flicker,” Windham’s letter to Iberdrola says. “In addition, we find your repeated dismissal of the question of proximity troubling, as is your lack of truthfulness about the problems your company has experienced with turbine neighbors who have been sickened, annoyed and deprived of quiet use of their property by your activities.”

One Windham Selectboard member — Vice Chairman Kord Scott — did not endorse the letter. Scott issued a statement saying he believes “a developer, in this case Iberdrola, asking a community to discuss or negotiate the issues surrounding a complicated project such as this is not an unusual business practice.”

“Iberdrola has said they will abide by a vote of the registered voters about a negotiated project and not proceed to the [state permitting] process if the vote is negative,” Scott said.

Engaging in talks with Iberdrola “is in no way indicative of a tacit acceptance of a project,” he added. “The voters ultimately decide.”

Iberdrola spokesman Art Sasse framed Windham Selectboard’s letter as an attempt to circumvent the town’s voters. Trying to get the company to pull out of the project, he argued, is an attempt to stop a town vote.

Sasse also said there wasn’t enough public notice of — or debate about — the town’s letter before the June 20 Windham Selectboard vote. “The letter is filled with falsehoods, inaccuracies and slanderous rhetoric, and the public should have been provided an opportunity to comment on the letter at a properly warned meeting before these two elected officials acted to send it,” Sasse said.

Seawright didn’t respond to an email seeking comment on Sasse’s statement.

Sasse added that Iberdrola will continue to work with the community and “will try and return this process to the proper path and formally respond directly to these two Selectboard members, holding further direct comment until they have had a chance to see our response.”

A footnote in Windham’s letter also elicited a response from Meadowsend. Windham officials wrote that they will ask the timber company to “engage the town in discussion that could lead to the town’s acquisition of the [Stiles Brook] property, so that it might be preserved for the good of us all as opposed to its being utilized to enrich parties with no concern for our town, our region and our people.”

Jeremy Turner, Meadowsend’s managing forester, said he believes the town is “accusing us of having no concern for the well-being of the people living near Stiles Brook.”

“I can say with absolute certainty that the team at Iberdrola has expressed more concern for the land, the people and [Meadowsend’s] family owned business in all of their communications with us than this statement conveys,” Turner said. “The actions by Iberdrola that we have witnessed firsthand speak more loudly to us than these antagonistic words do.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #363 (Wednesday, June 29, 2016). This story appeared on page A4.

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