Experts on wildlife speak to commission

Swanton Wind opponents unhappy with testimony

By Tom Benton

Staff Writer

The Facts

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SWANTON — The Swanton Planning Commission heard from specialists connected to the Swanton Wind project during the commission’s Wednesday meeting.

The legislature has charged local commissions with drafting plans to guide renewable energy development within their towns. Three commissioners were caught exchanging emails about the renewable energy plan outside of a warned meeting, in violation of the Open Meeting Law. Last night’s hearing was part of an effort to make amends for that violation.

In Swanton, that plan would have a direct impact on the proposed Swanton Wind project.

The project’s developers were on-hand for the meeting, Travis and Ashley Belisle, along with their attorney, Anthony Iarrapino. Ashley thanked the commission for their response to the violation, and said, “We’d like to move past it.”

They weren’t the only attendees. Concerned residents filled every seat of the tiny conference room leaving others to stand.

Two presentations took up the bulk of the hour-and-15-minute meeting, one by ecological consultant Dori Barton, the owner of Arrowwood Environmental, another by landscape architect David Raphael, the principal architect and planner of LandWorks.

“Listen to the things that have been driving your discussion,” Iarrapino urged the commissioners, topics like wildlife and wetlands protection, visual aesthetics and concerns over blasting.

Iarrapino showed the commission a recent edition of Seven Days detailing developments in Milton, among them Georgia Mountain Community Wind, a series of wind turbines that, despite its name, is mostly located in Milton. He highlighted a bird’s eye view of the town, in which the turbines are only faintly visible.

“This is a town that’s transforming itself,” Iarrapino said. “It’s on the move. It’s on the way up. And if you read this whole story, you won’t see anything in here about people who complain that there is a wind project in town, people leaving town because there’s a wind project in town, people’s property values going down. What you see is a community in which the wind project’s been there a number of years, and they’re focused on other issues.”

Barton presented an outline of her team’s inventory of natural resources located on the proposed wind project site, including wetlands, wildlife habitat, rare and endangered species, streams and significant natural communities.

Barton’s team studied a 260-acre area over 20 days. She emphasized that her studies require specific, objective methodology designed in conjunction with the Agency of Natural Resources (ANR).

She asked if anyone in the room had been on the proposed project site. Only Dustin Lang, a resident of Rocky Ridge Road, where the project would be sited, raised his hand.

“’Til I was banned from being out there,” he said.

Barton said the area is not untouched, as some have characterized it, but is actually a “working landscape” and a “very actively managed” sugarbush.

She said her team identified and mapped five wetlands in the area. The ANR classifies wetlands to determine their level of state protection. Protected wetlands require a 50-foot buffer.

However, Barton said the Swanton Wind Project has been designed to avoid all wetlands. The six streams on-site were incorporated into the design.

“This site was very conducive to avoiding natural resources,” Barton said.

None of the “natural communities” Barton’s team identified on-site — trees and plants including hemlock, oak and pine — meet the state’s criteria for rare and irreplaceable resources.

She confirmed that there is a deer yard on the site, which had been reported by the project’s opponents, but Barton said the project was also designed to avoid the deer yard. The next nearest identified deer yard is 1,000 feet to the north.

She also said that although her team identified bear-scarred beech trees and one sign of scat, there is virtually no sign of bears using the wetlands.

The project would clear a total of 40 acres from the 260 Barton and her team studied, approximately 0.8 percent of the habitat block.

Barton said she “did not doubt” the project site is a feeding ground for deer. She said that the project has been designed to enhance the deer yard through periodic selective cutting, and noted that Travis plans to stop logging in that area.

Barton emphasized that the deer yard is not currently protected, but would be if the project goes through.

Barton’s presentation was met with polite silence from attendees, many of whom grew increasingly irate during Raphael’s.

Commissioner Ed Daniel recognized Raphael from his work for Swanton Electric. Raphael said he is under contract to the state of Maine as well as Vermont, and that he has worked as the chair of his town’s own development review board for as long as he’s been a landscape architect, 30 years.

Raphael emphasized that his practice uses the same objective methodology used anywhere in the country. His team studies books on the general area around a proposed project, investigates local recreation and studies the area first-hand, but he noted his team can’t access the visual effect on every house in the area because they are not granted access to individual homes.

He said his firm measures the visibility of wind projects using a conservative tree height of 30 feet, and that most of the trees on the proposed project site measure 50 to 60 feet tall.

Raphael’s team uses cutting-edge architectural and graphic design programs, such as CAD (computer-aided design) software and Photoshop, to create visual representations of proposed projects. He shared visual representations of the Swanton Wind Project from multiple locations in Swanton, Fairfield and St. Albans.

Raphael said that unofficial visual representations of the project in circulation have been inaccurate. He stressed that there was no benefit whatsoever for his team to falsify their visual representations.

After more than an hour of presentations, many attendees had had enough.

“This is such a biased presentation I can’t stand it,” one audience member said loudly. Another attendee raised their hand to clarify that their concern was not people who must see the project, but people who must live near it.

“And the sound,” one attendee repeatedly emphasized.

Lang asked if there had been another background choice for Raphael’s visual representations, in which the turbines were depicted before a sunny day’s blue sky. Raphael said visual representations are crafted to depict the most representative environment possible.

The Planning Commission’s chair, Jim Hubbard, said the commission did not question the accuracy of Raphael’s materials. “I’ve lived in that area my whole life,” Hubbard said, “and this is how I envision it’ll look. You’ve done a great job.”

But Hubbard had a question. “Just how much energy is this supposed to generate?”

“Up to 20 megawatts,” Iarrapino said.

Hubbard pointed out that the Highgate hydroelectric dam generates 10 megawatts of energy. He said that amount is not just sufficient for local power, but actually creates an energy surplus.

“We have a sufficient amount of energy [in Swanton],” Hubbard said. “That’s why we’re working so hard on this project, to try to see if it fits into Swanton’s future. Do we need 40 more grocery stores in town?”

Selectboard chair Joel Clark questioned the fairness of the presentations, considering the warned presentations were described as focusing on the methodology used by proponents of the project, rather than a presentation on the project itself. Iarrapino noted that Hubbard had invited Swanton Wind representatives specifically to present information on the project at the July 20 meeting where the commission first acknowledged the Open Meeting Law violation, as reflected in that meeting’s minutes.

At the end of last night’s meeting, Republican Representative Marianna Gamache presented again proposed language refinements that initiated the controversy over the commission’s private deliberations in June. This time, Gamache offered everyone in the audience copies of the language, both physically and digitally — including Iarrapino and the Belisles.

Daniel, one of the three commissioners identified in the meeting law violation, tried to make crystal clear just what he was allowed to do between the end of last night’s meeting and the start of September’s. He asked if he could create a draft based on the presented materials, and then publicly submit it at the next meeting.

Hubbard said yes, before assuring everyone in attendance that all the presented materials would be considered in reworking the municipal plan.

“If it’s been printed, we’ve read it,” Hubbard said.