SWANTON – There was standing room only at a joint meeting of the selectboards of Swanton, Fairfield, and St. Albans Town Tuesday evening as the three bodies discussed the proposed wind project proposed for Rocky Ridge in Swanton.
The boards met to discuss cooperation as a means to address the project and to contemplate sending a joint letter to the Public Service Board and Governor Shumlin to state their position on the project.
The boards made no decisions at the meeting. The consensus was that the individual selectboards would discuss the issue at their own, separate meetings.
The bulk of the discussion was devoted to taking public comment, much of which turned into a forum for concerned citizens and board members to pose questions to Swanton Wind’s proprietor, Travis Belisle, and one of his consultants, Martha Staskus.
Questions centered on funding for the project’s development, the ultimate source for the power it would produce, and concerns about potential impacts on nearby homeowners.
Early in the evening, a Swanton Selectboard member asked for a show of hands from those who were in favor of the project and those that were undecided. The tally was four of each out of a total of more than 50
“We all support renewable power,” said selectman Joel Clark said,” but do we really want to take this ridgeline that we all love so much and put seven 499-foot wind turbines on it?”
The chief complaint among those present was the lack of weight given to local opinions and the power given by law to the three appointed members of the Public Service Board (PSB).
“We need to bring control back to communities,” said Swanton selectboard member Dan Billado. “The folks in Montpelier have set a very ambitious goal to have our power 90 percent renewable by 2050. This is something they’ve done without regard for the communities or affect it will have on them.”
Several of Franklin County’s legislators were in attendance Tuesday including Brian Savage and Marianna Gamache of Swanton, Daniel Connor of Fairfield, Corey Parent of St. Albans, and state senator Dustin Degree. Connor was the only Democrat among those in attendance.
Savage criticized what he views as an abuse of the Act 248 process, which allows small power producers such as Swanton Wind to circumvent local zoning and development review and seek approval at the state level.
“Act 248 was created for protection of utilities,” Savage said. “Swanton Wind is not a utility. They have no business to trump local zoning. [Rep. Gamache] and I intend to present legislation next session that will require projects like this to go before local zoning and planning commissions.”
Savage did say that his legislation, if approved, would likely not affect Swanton Wind.
According to Vermont law, the PSC has exclusive authority to grant a certificate of public good to any new electrical generation facility.
Parent expressed his concern with the lack of local control in the process:
“Sometimes I feel like we’re the last bastion in Vermont. We need to change the process. We need to put the power back into the hands of the people and local communities.”
Many individuals expressed their concern about water quality, wildlife, noise, health, and aesthetics and demanded answers of Swanton Wind.
Staskus noted that project developers are still very early in development of their proposal and that these issues would be addressed when Swanton Wind’s initial filing is made on or after Oct. 8.
“We’ve just issued our 45-day notice,” Staskus said. “I’m here taking notes on your concerns and they are things we plan to address in our filings. All questions will have to be addressed formally and thoroughly before the PSB will issue a certificate of public good to Swanton Wind. The towns will be able to participate. The Agency of Natural Resources, planning commissions, the Public Service Department, and neighbors will have a chance to participate in those hearings.”
Still, many were not willing to wait for the petition to be filed. One individual asked Belisle to identify the source of the funding for the project, specifically if it was coming from out-of-state investors. Belisle said that it was coming from his own checkbook.
Others alleged the Belisle and his wife, Ashley, had told them that the people living on Rocky Ridge Road should not be concerned because the noise will be much worse for the people downwind on the Fairfield side of the hill. Belisle denied saying anything like that.
“I never said that to anyone and I don’t believe Ashley did either,” he said.
Clark asked Staskus to explain what would happen to the project after its 20-year lifespan ended. He also expressed concerns about a safety radius around the turbines. Clark said he was worried that a malfunction might launch the blades or other pieces a great distance.
Staskus responded that Swanton Wind was responsible for maintenance of the site and the eventual tear down. She said that a letter of credit would be provided to the PSB, which would satisfy the decommissioning costs. She also said that the turbines and their blades are very heavy and would fall straight to the ground if something happened.
Swanton Selectboard member John Lavoie spoke directly to Belisle near the end of the public comment:
“This is going to affect us, our kids, and for a long time to come. Everyone can look at the devastation Georgia Mountain Wind has caused and how it affected the lives of the people who live there. Here in Swanton, we don’t get a lot of breaks. If property values start falling, or people start leaving, the town won’t have enough revenue to survive.
“Travis, it took a lot of courage to come here tonight, but I look at what’s been said here and think, is it worth it? You live here in Swanton. Can you look at your neighbors, to the people you sold homes to if these turbines go up?”
After the meeting, Belisle told the Messenger that he was “disappointed” with the response of what he said were a few of those in Swanton.
“I think they’ve got a lot of misinformation about what these turbines will do,” Belisle said. “I live in the same neighborhood these people do. I don’t want light flicker or noise or anything that will affect our health.
“I’ve given a lot to this community. I’ve build over 40 houses here and employed people here. Each of those homes produces an average of $4,500 in property taxes each year. I’ve given a lot to this community, but I don’t begrudge these people for saying what they think is right.”
When asked if public opinion would affect his decision on whether to move forward with the project, Belisle said it would not.
“There were 50 or so people here today. But there are thousands in Swanton, Fairfield and St. Albans that we haven’t heard from. The dissenters are actually a much smaller group than the community as a whole.”
“I am not a quitter. I will listen to my advisors on the timing of when we submit the petition and about any other issues, but I started this process and I’m going to keep going. The only thing that will stop me is if the PSB denies the certificate of public good. If that happens, then it happens, but I’m not going to back down based on what I’ve heard here.”
At the close of the meeting the boards decided to discuss among themselves whether they would agree to submit a single letter to Gov. Peter Shumlin and the PSB to voice their opposition. They expressed a hope that they would have as many signatories as possible.
Staskus reminded everyone that Swanton Wind would hold a public forum at the Village Complex on Thursday, Sept. 10, at 6 p.m. where the consultants hired by Swanton Wind to advance its petition will be available to answer questions and make a presentation on the subject.