Regional Report: Plainfield Biomass Continues To Rile Neighbors

Mar 27, 2015

Things got so heated at Plainfield’s Select Board meeting Monday night in a discussion about Goddard College’s planned biomass-fueled heat plant, that one elected official told board members they’d be in “deep water” if they disregarded some residents’ wishes to have another meeting on it.

The school is applying for a 40-year Rural Development loan from the USDA that would cover 90 percent of the costs for the plant. As part of that process, it needs a letter of support from the town.

Goddard emailed the Select Board on Thursday looking for that support. Chairman Bram Towbin, speaking for himself, replied that the school has “mishandled the community relations aspect of this project” by not telling residents what was going on since the project began. Towbin invited someone from Goddard to attend the board’s meeting Monday to plead its case.

Residents who live near the plant’s site have been fighting it every step of the way. On Town Meeting Day in March 2013, voters rejected a nonbinding article asking the college to halt construction until it could be proven the nanoparticles emitted would be harmless. The debate got nasty, with neighbors accusing each other of being “liars,” “losers” and “jerks.”

Resident Karen Bouffard had appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court the state Environmental Court’s ruling in favor of the plant. The Supreme Court rejected the appeal in November, citing a lack of evidence for her claims that the plant would damage the aesthetics of the area.

Some of those at Monday’s meeting were already cranky because about 20 people were trying to cram themselves into the small room in the town’s municipal building that the board uses for its meetings. Towbin took the blame for that, saying that he should have warned the meeting for the Town Hall.

Residents also weren’t happy that Goddard didn’t send someone from the school. Instead, it sent Tim Maker, the CEO and president of Montpelier-based Community Biomass Systems Inc. The company has been acting as project manager for the plant since 2011.
 

"The president [of Goddard, Bob Kenny] asked me to represent the project in the terms of this document, which is about a loan application. As far as any information that went to the college and went to me, this meeting was simply about the signature of this document." - Tim Maker, CEO and president of Community Biomass Systems Inc.

“The president [of Goddard, Bob Kenny] asked me to represent the project in the terms of this document, which is about a loan application,” Maker said. “As far as any information that went to the college and went to me, this meeting was simply about the signature of this document.”

The board looked poised to provide just that, with two of the three members, David Strong and Betsy Ziegler, voicing their support of the project. Towbin and some residents, however, weren’t ready to give their support.

Towbin acknowledged that the town’s Development Review Board had approved the plant, the state has signed off on it, the college has been successful in litigation and the town plan talks about supporting renewable resources.

“In that lens, I think there is an argument to be made that the town should support the project,” Towbin said. “My concern is on a different level. It’s a little esoteric, but very important. It’s on the issue of communication and overall neighborliness. From the town’s point of view, there has been a problem in terms of communicating with various parties within the town that has created a great deal of animosity.”

Bouffard gave the board a petition with 78 signatures that she said were from Plainfield residents who do not support the plant. She said she collected the signatures in three days.

"My concern is on a different level. It's a little esoteric, but very important. It's on the issue of communication and overall neighborliness. From the town's point of view, there has been a problem in terms of communicating with various parties within the town that has created a great deal of animosity." - Plainfield Select Board Chairman Bram Towbin

“Whatever percentage of the voters in the town, I think that’s significant,” she said. As of Town Meeting Day, Plainfield had 893 registered voters.

George Cushing, the town’s constable and collector of delinquent taxes, said the issue appeared to be a hot topic and that maybe another meeting would be prudent if the document didn’t need to be signed right away. Maker said the USDA has not been clear about the deadline.

Bob Atchinson, the town’s energy coordinator, didn’t think another meeting was necessary.

“Isn’t it up to the Select Board whether or not to sign this? If the Select Board feels that in their wisdom you don’t have enough information to sign it, then that’s your prerogative,” Atchinson said.

Towbin said he’s looking to the community for guidance and would hold another meeting if residents want it.

Strong said he was willing to have another meeting but was ready to sign the document.

“I think the opponents are the neighbors who are most affected by (the plant),” Strong said. “But I don’t think they represent the community as a whole, and I don’t know whether a second meeting would generate any additional information.”

Strong said he got the sense from Towbin’s comments that no amount of information is going to change his mind on this issue. He said Towbin has done a good job of criticizing the college about its lack of communication, but that’s not what signing the document is about.

“At this point, you’ve got to decide whether this is a meritorious project, it’s good for the town,” Strong said. “That’s really what we’re being asked.”

Towbin said he was simply explaining the history of the situation and that Goddard is asking the town for a favor.

Strong reiterated that the decision was up to the Select Board, not the residents. That didn’t sit well with Cushing.

“You are elected officials,” he said. “This group of people would not be here if they did not have a question of support. And because you are elected officials, you really are mandated to follow the people because we elect you. And I don’t think that having another meeting is out of line. I don’t think you three people should be making this decision, boom, like that. I think you’re going to be in deep water, way over your head if you do.”

The board decided to table the discussion until its next meeting April 6 at 7 p.m. at the Town Hall.

Samantha Kolber, Goddard’s communications manager, said Tuesday that Maker would be at that meeting. The president will make an effort to be there, she said, but if Kenny can’t make it, someone from the school’s staff will attend.

Eric Blaisdell is a reporter for the Times-Argus, where this story first appeared. It is republished here through a partnership with the newspaper.