(Host) This week, the Public Service Board opens hearings on Vermont’s largest wind development – a proposal for 21 wind turbines that would stand 440 feet tall on a ridgeline in Lowell.
Developers hoped to avoid some of the controversy that other projects have faced by asking for, and winning, Lowell voters’ support last Town Meeting Day. But it hasn’t been that easy.
In the first part of our series on wind’s future in Vermont, VPR’s John Dillon explains how passionate, and personal, the debate still is in Lowell.
(Dillon) Don Nelson is a retired dairy farmer. He’s a slight, wiry guy with white hair and a bad back from years milking cows.
The farm where Nelson and his wife, Shirley, live is far up a dirt road, snug up against the Lowell Mountains. They’ve fought wind turbine development here for almost ten years. The first company eventually called it quits.
But the project was revived by Green Mountain Power. The Nelsons continued to fight and they wonder whether they’ve been targeted as a result. Don Nelson remembers Friday the 13th of August last year.
(Nelson) "I saw those flames go out the door with no smoke and I said: ‘The barn’s on fire!’ And I couldn’t believe what I was seeing."
(Dillon) Nelson had slept past his normal dawn rising. Soon after he poured coffee, he saw his red barn erupt in flames.
(Nelson) "It didn’t go bang. It went ‘woooom!’ And then ‘wooom!’ like that. And the first one, it forced the flames right through the cracks in the roofing."
(Dillon) Balls of flame leveled the barn within 30 minutes. State police couldn’t determine a cause. Nelson thinks his barn was torched. And he thinks his opposition to the wind project might have been why.
(Nelson) "All I know is that it’s a $160 million project and the town of Lowell is going to get $400,000-$500,000 a year. Money changes people. I don’t know. How do I know? All I know is: I know the barn was set, and I know that we didn’t set it."
(Dillon) The embers of the barn fire cooled last August. But tensions in Lowell and other communities remain high over wind development and the future of Vermont’s ridgelines.
On one side are people like the Nelsons. They argue the projects will hurt tourism and damage fragile mountain habitat.
But many others see economic and environmental value. Alden Warner is a selectman in Lowell. He says Vermont has to take responsibility for generating some of its own electricity.
(Warner) "Our earth’s supply of energy sources is going to be depleted. The millions of gallons that are being burned every day – we’ve got to do something to start getting prepared for our energy."
(Dillon) Warner is also the Lowell fire chief. He thinks the Nelson fire probably was intentionally set, but who did it and why remains a mystery.
(Warner) "I would really be disappointed if I found out that if somebody that was pro wind turbines would actually take something to the degree of actually destroying somebody’s property just to get even."
(Dillon) Warner says deep divisions remain in town. He’s a big booster of the project – but one of his brothers is involved in the opposition group.
Still, GMP won Lowell’s support on Town Meeting Day. The town will be rewarded with annual payments that could cut property taxes by a third or more.
Opponents say the impacts go far beyond Lowell.
Steve Wright is a former state Fish and Wildlife Commissioner and member of the Conservation Commission in Craftsbury. Many areas in Craftsbury overlook the Lowell range. Wright said he thought ridgeline wind generation was benign until he started reading the 1,300 page application GMP filed with the Public Service Board.
(Wright) "I read one segment in there that flipped me over completely and that was the segment on the amount of road building and alteration of the 450 million year old Cretaceous era ridgeline which currently basically has no roads there. That’s what turned me around."
(Dillon) Trees would have to be cleared for four miles of new road. State biologists warn about damage to critical bear habitat. Wright says the mountain will have to be blasted and leveled as much as 40 feet in places. And he believes the beauty of the area will be damaged.
(Wright) "People come to many towns in Vermont, I believe, for the way these towns look. And we get some push back often on the view not meaning anything. I contest that: why have we worked for years to create a body of legislation that essentially protects the view?"
(Dillon) Wright refers to Act 250, the billboard law, and other efforts to preserve the state’s iconic character. But another land ethic runs fiercely through Vermont – and the Northeast Kingdom in particular – protection of property rights.
(Pion) "Everybody wants to have a say in everybody else’s land. And I have a problem with that."
(Dillon) Richard Pion is chairman of the Lowell selectboard. He says landowners have the right to do what they want with their property. A neighbor steers his tractor away from Pion’s front yard, where Pion points out a few of the turbines will be visible. But he’s not worried about the view.
(Pion) "Once these are built for six months people won’t pay any attention to them. Won’t be any worse that looking at the ski resort."
(Dillon) Back in Don and Shirley Nelson’s living room, a clock chimes the hour as they reflect on the personal toll of their opposition. Shirley Nelson says the barn fire put many on edge. Don Nelson worries about the future.
(Nelson) Some people couldn’t stand to live here. Some people think this is heaven, but it won’t be when this is done. It’s going to change the character of the Northeast Kingdom forever.
(Dillon) The Nelsons and others fighting the project will be at the Public Service Board this week. But they’re not hopeful. They point out that the state agency that represents electric consumers recently reversed itself and endorsed the Lowell wind project.
For VPR News, I’m John Dillon.
(Host) Tomorrow, we take a look at the science behind wind energy, and how much wind development is needed to effectively reduce greenhouse gas pollution.