Rejected land swap causes setback for wind project

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(Host) The U.S. Forest Service has handed a setback to wind energy developers in southern Vermont. Project proponents had wanted to trade private land for public property to accommodate a new wind farm. But forest managers rejected the proposed land exchange, saying it did not fit with their overall goals for the national forest.

VPR’s John Dillon reports.

(Dillon) The land swap was the first step to build 22 new wind turbines in the national forest, each tower 330 feet high.

The public land that the developers wanted to convert to private ownership included 380 acres of ridgeline above the Lamb Brook roadless area. This is property that environmentalists years ago had fought to keep off-limits from logging.

But the Forest Service rejected the land exchange. Gina Owens is district ranger in the Manchester office.

(Owens) “That 380 acres basically involved strips of land along the ridgetops. And when you look at the map and what that sort of did to the ownership patterns in the area, it really broke up the public’s land base in a way that would have made it extremely difficult to manage.”

(Dillon) Owens says project developers must apply for a special use permit to site the turbines on federal land. She says the same procedure would have been required for the land exchange as well.

The regulatory review involves an environmental impact study that will take at least 18 months.

(Owens) “We’re working with them very closely and actively so that they don’t get a bunch of false starts. We’re working with them to carry the proposal through our procedures.”

(Dillon) The project developer is EnXco, a French based company that wants to site the new turbines near an existing wind farm in Searsburg. John Zimmerman is EnXco’s Vermont representative. He had hoped for a different decision on the land exchange, but he says the project will still proceed.

(Zimmerman) “It’s a disappointment in some respects because we had worked hard to pursue this course. And I mean by we, it was a lot more than the project developer. It was the Forest Service, it was environmental organizations, it was a lot of people at the state level. This seemed like a reasonable course to investigate.”

(Dillon) According to Zimmerman, the environmental study will examine the project’s impact on the remote forest habitat.

(Zimmerman) “It will infringe on areas that are known for their wildlands values, and that’s going to be one of the topics or impacts that will have to be very carefully thought through.”

(Dillon) Green Mountain Power is owner of the existing Searsburg wind project. The company is involved in the planning for the expansion project. But a company spokeswoman said the utility has not yet decided whether to invest in the new wind turbines.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon.

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