Three years after the completion of the Georgia Mountain Wind project in Franklin County, a proposal for a new wind development in Swanton has reignited the debate over turbines on Vermont’s ridgelines.
Travis Belisle was developing a nine-lot subdivision in Swanton when one of the sub-contractors suggested he measure the wind on the adjacent 250-acre ridge line, which Belisle also owned. He immediately liked the idea.
"It’s got a network of roads on it. We use it for sugaring and logging. What’s wrong with taking the next step and being more efficient than we’re being now, harnessing the natural wind that’s provided to us, with no emissions, harnessing it and using it to power 7,800 homes? There’s a benefit to everyone," Belisle said.
In addition to hiring a consulting team, Belisle and his wife Ashley have spent time visiting other wind operations. Their Swanton Wind Project could include seven turbines up to 500 feet tall, so Ashley says she wanted to be sure she could live near it. The ridgeline is in the Belisles' back yard. "I’ve been up to neighbors of Georgia Mountain and have sat and spoken with them, people who don’t have a problem living next to them," Ashley Belisle said.
But after holding a meeting with their neighbors in June, some, including Christine Lang, have become concerned about the scale of the project. "More [turbines] than Georgia, bigger and closer to our houses. So I’m like, ‘Feels concerning,'" she said.
Neighbors in the development bought their properties from Travis Belisle or his father. In the development agreement, they were informed of the possibility of a sugaring operation, quarry or an “electrical generation wind farm.”
Lang said she feels mislead about what that meant. “We were like, 'What does that mean?' and he said, 'Oh, it’s just a small net metering project, you’ll never see it or hear it.'"
Opponents of the project took their case to a recent planning commission meeting in Swanton. They urged a re-write of the town plan to include specific language on wind farm siting. Planners expressed frustration that they were told of this project at the eleventh hour of their town plan re-write. But Belisle told the select board of his plans in March, according to town minutes.
Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment told the commission that while the Public Service Board controls whether the wind project will be built, towns do have a voice in their plan.
"When an application is filed, it cherry picks the language from your town plan that supports the proposal. So if your town plan supports renewable energy, that’s going to show up in the developer's application and that’s going to be used. And if you don’t have any other language in there that addresses other issues, then you are being silent on those issues," she told the commission.
Others at the meeting expressed frustration at the Public Service Board process, saying it doesn’t give voice to nearby property owners and is confusing and expensive for citizens to navigate. Project neighbor Rick Doe said residents should have been informed of the project in 2011, when Belisle put up a wind measurement tower, without a state "certificate of public good" that is normally required. The state Public Service Board has opened an investigation into that case.
When asked about the measurement tower, Belisle gave a prepared statement: "The Public Service Board process provides us with an opportunity to receive clear guidance on what, if any, unmet regulatory obligations we have regarding the wind measurement equipment on our property. We look forward to providing relevant information to the board and to abiding by the final outcome of the process. All filings with the board are public documents and we will be glad to share the information we present to the board with any interested members of the media after it has been filed."
Belisle said he has faith in the Public Service Board process. "They’re there to protect the public, so I don’t necessarily agree that it should be anyone but the Public Service Board. Whereas none of these projects would be approved at that point," he said. "If it was left up to people who aren’t properly informed and educated, who didn’t like it prior to, during or after, then this clean energy future for the state of Vermont will go down the tubes, will go backward."
Belisle says he’ll formally file for the project soon. He hopes Swanton Wind will begin construction in 2016.