The State Department of Public Service has weighed in against a bid to build exploratory weather towers in Windham. It’s a case that could set new precedent.
The towers are a first step in determining if a site is suitable for wind turbines — a type of development the Windham town plan specifically rules out.
The company proposing the towers is Atlantic Wind. It wants to build three meteorological test towers on ridges in Grafton and Windham.
The proposal is before the state Public Service Board, which must issue a "certificate of public good" for the project to go forward.
Several years ago, the town of Windham opposed a wind project in Londonderry, which was never built. Then, in 2008, Windham revised its town plan to ban any commercial wind development in town. Mary Boyer chairs the Windham select board.
"We were very deliberate in writing our town plan several years ago," she says. "We were very thoughtful, we had community-wide support."
Atlantic Wind, which is owned by Spanish Energy developer Iberdrola, is challenging the town’s attempt to stop the towers. The town of Grafton hasn’t taken a position.
Paul Copleman, an Atlantic Wind spokesman, says the company only wants to build meteorological towers.
Copleman says Atlantic Wind views the proposed towers not as commercial, but as exploratory, to determine whether the site would be feasible for wind.
"We’re asking for the opportunity to study the wind," he says. "And since the town plan is coming up for discussion next year, if we’re in a position to move forward, we think it’s fair to engage the community with the possible merits of a project, rather than rule it out."
But in a letter to the Public Service Board, the Shumlin administration says the project is commercial. That’s because the towers would study the commercial prospects for wind power on the site.
Elizabeth Miller is Commissioner of the Department of Public Service.
"It’s the department’s position that the board has to heed the town plan in a situation like this," Miller asserts, "Because the town has gone through a considered and deliberative process in coming up with this town plan to determine that it doesn’t want commercial development in these regions."
Atlantic Wind contends that the Public Service Board isn’t obliged to follow towns’ wishes but only to give them "due consideration."
The company has argued that the need for clean, renewable energy outweighs the town’s preferences.
Public Service Commissioner Miller says Vermont has never faced a situation like in which a town’s intent is stated clearly in a plan approved before any new project was proposed.
Miller adds, "We don’t believe there’s something on the other side of the scale that would justify going against the town’s wishes here, given the planning process that they went through."
Miller says her department has been advising other towns to work through their town plans to participate most effectively in siting energy generation projects.
The state has also formed a commission to study that process, especially the role and power of public input into energy issues.