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Vote doesn’t rule out windmills at Stiles Brook

WINDHAM—The Nov. 8 Stiles Brook Wind vote — pitting the small towns of Windham and Grafton against a multinational turbine developer — attracted attention throughout Vermont and beyond.

But if another developer sets its sights on Stiles Brook Forest, that vote won’t matter much.

The two towns’ rejection of Iberdrola Renewables’ 24-turbine project was specific to that proposal — so much so that the company’s name was included in the ballot question.

While Iberdrola immediately pledged to stop work at Stiles Brook in the wake of the Election Day balloting, neither the landowner nor any other wind company is obligated to do the same.

At this point, there’s no indication that another wind project is coming to Stiles Brook. But Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman couldn’t rule out the possibility that his company could offer its substantial development work to a different turbine company.

“We’ve been focused on working with the community and [Stiles Brook owner Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd.] to develop this project, and we traditionally develop projects to own and operate ourselves long-term,” Copleman said. “Over the next few days and weeks, we’ll figure out what the next steps are as we stop development, but we haven’t spent any time on that yet.”

’All reasonable opportunities’

Similarly, nothing is off the table for Meadowsend, a New Hampshire-based timber company that maintains the 5,000-acre tract. “Looking forward, I think any and all reasonable opportunities for progressive land management are an option from our standpoint,” said Jeremy Turner, Meadowsend’s managing forester.

Iberdrola and Meadowsend spent more than four years developing and promoting the Stiles Brook Wind Project. Initially proposed at 28 turbines and later downsized to 24, it would have been Vermont’s largest wind power site.

The project spurred an intense battle that included residents, municipal officials, businesses, and second-homeowners in both towns. Opponents raised concerns about the project’s economic, environmental, and health impacts, while Iberdrola dismissed such worries and touted the project’s renewable energy as a tool to combat climate change.

There was money in the mix as well: Iberdrola offered a combined $1.5 million in annual payments to the two towns, which included money that would have gone directly to residents if the wind project were built.

It all came to a head Nov. 8, when voters in both towns rejected the Stiles Brook plan. In Grafton, the vote was 235 against and 158 in favor; in Windham, it was 181 opposed and 101 in favor.

Iberdrola didn’t need the towns’ approval, but the company had committed to abiding by those votes. Soon after the ballots were counted, Copleman said Iberdrola would “cease development ... unless the communities reconsider their decision.”

Open to other offers

While Iberdrola may have to wait for a reconsideration, Meadowsend doesn’t. Turner said nothing is in the works at this point, but he said the issues that made his company seek a wind developer — namely, economic and climate-change concerns — haven’t changed.

“I don’t think the need for thinking outside the box as a major landowner is going to go away,” Turner said.

Turner expressed frustration at the results of the Windham/Grafton vote and the tone of the debate that led to it. But he said Meadowsend still would entertain a proposal from a different wind developer at Stiles Brook.

“We would certainly be all ears, because this is a matter of doing the right thing,” Turner said.

Officials in Windham, which would have hosted the majority of the Stiles Brook turbines, see things very differently.

Windham Selectboard Chairman Frank Seawright won’t dismiss the possibility of another wind proposal coming to town. But Seawright — a vocal turbine opponent — also thinks it’s unlikely due to the opposition in his town and in Grafton.

“I don’t see anyone being foolhardy enough to jump in right now,” he said.

Seawright also pointed to big changes in the state and national political scene. Both Republican Gov.-elect Phil Scott and Republican President-elect Donald Trump have spoken against large wind turbines.

“It does not look like a bright future for wind to me,” Seawright said.

Proposing alternatives

In addition to reiterating their stance against commercial-scale wind turbines, the Stiles Brook protesters also are proposing alternatives.

Seawright again raised the possibility that the two towns could somehow acquire and preserve Stiles Brook — a notion that has been dismissed by Meadowsend.

And Defenders of the Green Mountains — the latest anti-turbine group to emerge in Grafton — issued a statement after the vote that called for an “alternative energy plan that is in keeping with the scale of the two towns and that meets the energy goals of the state.”

As Stiles Brook supporters and opponents were looking ahead, there was one final footnote on Iberdrola’s proposal. Surveys of nonresident taxpayers in the two towns were tallied Nov. 9, and in each case a large majority said they opposed the project.

In Grafton, there were 152 opposed to Iberdrola’s plan, 35 in favor and 14 undecided. In Windham, 171 of 190 respondents were against the project.

The polls were designed after second-homeowners had requested a way to participate in the Stiles Brook process. The surveys were left uncounted until Nov. 9, officials have said, in order to avoid any complaint that the results would influence the residents’ vote.

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Originally published in The Commons issue #383 (Wednesday, November 16, 2016). This story appeared on page C1.

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