GRAFTON—On July 18, Ron Pilette quietly accepted the chairmanship of Grafton Selectboard “with trepidation.”
That’s because Pilette and his fellow board members are presiding over a town that’s been sharply divided by the proposed Stiles Brook Wind Project.
Policy and personal disputes provide a messy background to nearly every debate, from critical issues such as voting and legal representation to minutiae such as meeting-agenda language.
Pilette himself can’t lay claim to neutrality, as he is an avowed opponent of large wind turbines. But he is vowing to move Grafton toward a decision on Stiles Brook, and he’s calling for more civility as the town makes a renewed push for clear information on wind power and its impacts.
“It’s very, very easy for us to lose our way remembering past, perceived hurts,” Pilette told a crowd of more than 50 people at Grafton Elementary School. “But if we really intend to do our best in terms of addressing this issue and helping the voters make the best decision by providing them with sufficient and useful information, we need to move forward. We can’t keep on fighting the past.”
Iberdrola Renewables is proposing what would be Vermont’s largest turbine site — 28 windmills capable of producing 96.6 megawatts of power — on a ridge between Grafton and Windham. Current plans call for 20 turbines in Windham and eight in Grafton.
Proponents have extolled the project’s renewable-energy benefits as well as Iberdrola’s projected payments of a combined $1 million annually to the two towns. But there has been vehement opposition due to concerns about negative impacts on property values, the environment, and health.
Iberdrola recently added fuel to the fire when it issued a detailed rebuttal to such concerns, most pointedly arguing that “the peer-reviewed scientific evidence overwhelmingly finds that properly sited wind turbines do not harm human health.”
On July 18, Stiles Brook opponents officially took control of Grafton’s Selectboard. Anti-turbine candidate John Turner was elected last week to fill a vacancy, prompting a reorganization in which Selectboard Chair Al Sands — who has clashed with wind opponents — was replaced in that leadership position by Pilette.
Skip Lisle, a vocal Stiles Brook opponent, was named vice chairman. And Turner was voted the board’s clerk.
The board’s makeup will help determine the tone and direction of Grafton’s discussions on the wind project. But it appears that the fate of Stiles Brook will rest on proposed townwide votes later this year in both towns, as Iberdrola has said it will abide by those results.
How that vote is conducted, however, is a matter of debate.
Grafton’s large contingent of second-homeowners has demanded a role in the town’s deliberations, but both the Vermont League of Cities and Towns and the Vermont Secretary of State’s office has said there is no legal way for nonresidents to participate in an official, Australian Ballot vote.
At the July 18 Selectboard meeting, Grafton town attorney Robin Stern underscored that argument.
“The statutes are really clear ... that those who can vote are registered voters of the town,” Stern said.
Beyond state statue, there also are local limitations on the wind vote. Grafton voters previously decided that any vote on wind energy facilities should be conducted via Australian Ballot, and Iberdrola has said it will heed only ballots cast by full-time residents.
The Selectboard’s new chair wrote in a recent letter that he is “fully committed to a vote by Australian Ballot by our legally registered voters.” Pilette added that, “for me, the vote should not be on a [wind] proposal but whether or not to enter into negotiations in the first instance.”
At the July 18 meeting, he also threw a bone to nonresidents, saying he will “fight very hard to find a strong voice for our second-homeowners. They deserve nothing less than that.”
Pilette didn’t detail the town’s options on that front, though they might include a survey or poll of second-homeowners.
Voting questions aside, Grafton also is wrestling with several other Stiles Brook issues. Those include whether to hire additional legal help and whether to enter into negotiations with Iberdrola.
Iberdrola has offered to reimburse some of the town’s legal expenses, but some worry that there may be strings attached to such money. “The concern I have is, if we take any money from Iberdrola before a vote ... it seems to taint the vote,” Lisle said.
The town attorney, though, urged the Selectboard to consider accepting help with the potentially “enormous” costs of investigating Stiles Brook’s impacts and the town’s options.
“I’m not seeing it as a trap for the town, because you’d be in control of [the attorney] you choose, the scope of services and how that would work,” Stern said.
Sands believes the town must be better prepared to deal with a wind project.
Even if Grafton voters reject Stiles Brook, “the [state] Public Service Board may still decide it is an opportunity for the state of Vermont, which is why we have consistently been told that we should be working with a lawyer with this type of expertise,” Sands said. “Grafton deserves a better-thought-out plan of action than counting on a ‘no’ vote and it all goes away.”
The town might come up with a better plan, some argue, if it had better information about the wind proposal.
That’s why Pilette proposed — and a majority of the Selectboard ultimately endorsed — formation of three committees to examine the project’s environmental, health, and economic impacts.
The five-member committees are to include one person who supports the wind project; one who opposes it; one who is undecided; a second-homeowner and a Selectboard member. Officials are soliciting volunteers to represent those groups.
Some warned that the committees could be sources of more wind-related contentiousness.
“You’re just going to have more meetings that look just like this one, and that is going to create more strife than we already have,” Grafton resident Joe Westclark told the board.
Pilette didn’t deny the challenge the committees will face in the months ahead.
“I see this as being very difficult to pull off,” he said. “I just think it’s the duty of the board to make that attempt.”
Following his first session as board chair, Pilette pronounced it “a pretty good meeting.” But not everyone shared that sentiment.
When Lisle said he believed the board was making progress, Sands responded, “you’re making progress because you’re headed in the direction you want to go.”