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Voters renounce Stiles Brook Wind plan

Falls 416-259, Iberdrola says it will honor its pledge and suspend project

WINDHAM—Voters in Grafton and Windham on Nov. 8 resoundingly rejected a 24-turbine wind project proposed for a ridgeline separating the two towns.

In Grafton, residents voted 235 against and 158 in favor of the Stiles Brook Wind Project, according to town officials. In Windham, the vote was 181 against and 101 in favor.

Developer Iberdrola Renewables will honor those votes and plans to “cease development of the Stiles Brook Wind Project unless the communities reconsider their decision,” spokesman Paul Copleman said.

Copleman also said the company was “disappointed by the unfortunate outcome” of the balloting. But opponents of the project immediately celebrated.

“I really did think it would be like this,” said Windham Selectboard Chairman Frank Seawright. “Living here in New England, I think there’s a lot of people who do have respect for democracy and local government.”

In Grafton, opposition groups issued a statement saying they will “fight to the end to preserve our ridgelines in Vermont. We will seek energy solutions that make less of a footprint while respecting Grafton’s own unique environment and character.”

Prior to the vote, Iberdrola spent years developing the Stiles Brook proposal. Initial plans called for 28 turbines to be built in Stiles Brook Forest, but the company downsized that by four turbines in early October.

That move was designed to lessen the project’s visual and noise impacts, Iberdrola said at the time.

Simultaneously, the company increased the “community benefit” package for the two towns from $1 million to $1.5 million annually. That included “partnership payments” totaling $565,000 annually to residents of Windham and Grafton if the wind project was constructed.

At the time, critics said the payment offer amounted to bribery or undue influence on the pending votes. The state attorney general’s office disagreed, though Secretary of State Jim Condos eventually spoke out against any payments offered to registered voters.

That was just one example in a long line of disputes over the Stiles Brook proposal. Critics, including several Windham officials, vehemently argued that the turbines could have negative impacts on aesthetics, property values, the environment, and even human health.

Two grassroots opposition organizations — Grafton Woodlands Group and Friends of Windham — sprang up to oppose the project.

But Iberdrola and Stiles Brook property owner Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd. defended the plan, saying the Stiles Brook turbines would be an important source of renewable energy and would combat the effects of climate change.

Iberdrola said turbines wouldn’t harm neighbors’ health and accused opponents of spreading false information.

An energy project like Stiles Brook requires a state certificate of public good, and towns don’t have veto power. But Iberdrola administrators repeatedly said they would abide by the results of Australian Ballot votes by residents of Windham and Grafton.

Both towns also conducted surveys of nonresident property owners after there was an outcry by second-homeowners, who cannot participate in a town election. Those surveys are supposed to be tallied in both towns on Wednesday.

But those nonresident results won’t have any effect on Iberdrola’s decision to suspend the project.

“We are grateful for our supporters’ efforts and for the significant portion of the local community that supported the project,” Copleman said after the Nov. 8 votes were tallied. “We are confident that the project would be a valuable and significant benefit to the local communities of Grafton and Windham, while also making an impact towards energy independence and climate change.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #382 (Wednesday, November 9, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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