Article

Save our ridgelines

Almost 70 years ago, Vermonters decided man's hand did not need to be evident everywhere. Remember that spirit now as this state considers allowing wind turbines on ridgelines.

For one state lawmaker, the debate about wind turbines on Vermont's ridgelines is reminiscent of a Depression-era scheme to build a highway along the spine of the state's highest peaks. The Green Mountain Parkway, which was defeated in a statewide referendum in 1936, would have stretched 260 miles from Massachusetts to the Canadian border -- and ruined our ridgelines.

Rep. Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham, sees the growing movement to build 30-story-tall wind towers on Vermont's mountaintops as a similar violation of the state's treasured natural assets. He has introduced a bill, H.186, to require that aesthetics, water purity, historic sites and wildlife habitat be given distinct consideration when the state is dealing with wind power proposals.

The bill is important because it opens a discussion that must happen in the Legislature as well as in all of Vermont. Our mountain- tops could come under assault no differently than building a Green Mountain Parkway.

Who decides?

Under the bill, a review of aesthetic and environmental issues for these high-elevation utility projects would be conducted by a district environmental commission -- rather than the Public Service Board -- using certain criteria of Vermont's restrictive land-use law Act 250. The Public Service Board would then be required to give the commission's findings due consideration when determining... [truncated due to possible copyright]  

For one state lawmaker, the debate about wind turbines on Vermont's ridgelines is reminiscent of a Depression-era scheme to build a highway along the spine of the state's highest peaks. The Green Mountain Parkway, which was defeated in a statewide referendum in 1936, would have stretched 260 miles from Massachusetts to the Canadian border -- and ruined our ridgelines.

Rep. Michael Obuchowski, D-Rockingham, sees the growing movement to build 30-story-tall wind towers on Vermont's mountaintops as a similar violation of the state's treasured natural assets. He has introduced a bill, H.186, to require that aesthetics, water purity, historic sites and wildlife habitat be given distinct consideration when the state is dealing with wind power proposals.

The bill is important because it opens a discussion that must happen in the Legislature as well as in all of Vermont. Our mountain- tops could come under assault no differently than building a Green Mountain Parkway.

Who decides?

Under the bill, a review of aesthetic and environmental issues for these high-elevation utility projects would be conducted by a district environmental commission -- rather than the Public Service Board -- using certain criteria of Vermont's restrictive land-use law Act 250. The Public Service Board would then be required to give the commission's findings due consideration when determining whether to issue a certificate of public good to a wind developer.

Obuchowski argues that environmental commissions, familiar with the principles of Act 250, are more adept than the Public Service Board at making decisions on aesthetics and sensitive environmental issues.

Gov. Jim Douglas' commission on wind energy decided that the current regulatory process for utility projects, 30 V.S.A. section 248, under the Public Service Board was adequate to deal with wind power -- an energy source that was not a consideration when the regulations were enacted in 1969. The opposing view is that Act 250's rigorous criteria for development should be applied to wind projects -- that Act 250 makes the environment the top priority while section 248 balances environmental good with economic benefit.

"Our ridgelines are special," Obuchowski says. "Once we violate them, they will be violated for a long time. We need to be respectful of the resources that will be impacted. They belong to all citizens of Vermont and all citizens of the world. Vermont is this haven that others come to enjoy. The infringement of the viewshed has as much impact on people living there as those who climb a peak."

State's spirit

The rush to wind power across the nation, spurred in part by the renewal of federal tax credits for wind developers and partly by state legislatures' renewable energy mandates, is taking root in this state as well.

Certainly, finding sources of nonpolluting energy is part and parcel of the Vermont spirit, but at the baseline of this spirit is understanding the special nature of our environment. This is the state that banned billboards. We ought to be the state that bans 330-foot- tall wind turbines on the top of our mountains. This stance is also part of the Vermont spirit. We are the shareholders of a wonderful environmental legacy.

State legislators are considering mandating renewables, such as wind, solar and biomass, as part of Vermont's energy mix. Vermont has only one wind tower project, 11 turbines at the Searsburg wind facility near Bennington. The towers, completed in 1997, are largely hidden from view because of the hilly terrain, and unlighted because they are below the 200-foot Federal Aviation Administration guidelines.

The Searsburg project, which is outdated, does not compare to the new wind turbines proposed for Vermont. They are at least 330 feet tall with flashing lights. Across the state, developers have been staking their territory with wind measurement towers, particularly in the Northeast Kingdom, preparing to seek government approval to construct commercial wind farms on ridges above 2,500 feet.

Next month, the first proposal for an industrial wind farm in the Northeast Kingdom will be before a Public Service Board hearing officer. Developer Mathew Rubin of Montpelier wants to build four 330-foot-tall turbines at the summit of East Mountain in East Haven, a property he owns in the heart of the conserved Champion Lands.

Opponents, including a group of residents called the Kingdom Commons Group, have a number of concerns about what the turbines would do to their home. Will Staats, a wildlife biologist and member of the group, sees the wind towers as man's intrusion on Vermont's "last wild place," the Northeast Kingdom.

Lesson of history

Vermont stands at an environmental crossroads. Obuchowski has raised the ghosts of Vermont's past and they must be considered.

The Green Mountain Parkway, conceived in 1933 as a tourist boost and job-creator, had the support of a number of key players including Gov. Stanley Wilson, the state planning commission, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce and even the editorial board of this newspaper. President Franklin D. Roosevelt had given it his preliminary approval.

But, as Vermont historian Samuel B. Hand writes in his book, "The Star that Set," the almost universal accord was broken by a challenge from the Green Mountain Club, guardians of the Long Trail. The trail would have been swallowed up by the highway. In the end, Vermonters voted their conscience and defeated the plan at Town Meeting Day in March 1936.

"This is the same kind of issue," Obuchowski says. "It will forever change the face of Vermont."

Wind turbines taller than the Bennington Battle Monument do not belong on Vermont's mountain tops.

Almost 70 years ago, Vermonters decided man's hand did not need to be evident everywhere. Remember that spirit now as this state considers allowing wind turbines on ridgelines.


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FEB 24 2005
http://www.windaction.org/posts/274-save-our-ridgelines
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