Environmental studies proceed this summer as Windham bolsters its town plan; Iberdrola pledges to honor voter wishes
GRAFTON—Citing a need to gather more data, Stiles Brook wind-farm developer Iberdrola Renewables has filed a motion to keep its meteorological (MET) towers operating for three years beyond Dec. 20, when its current Certificate of Public Good (CPG) expires.
The July 7 filing, which seeks to amend and extend the CPG for the towers, installed in 2012, came as a surprise to residents who attended an informational meeting called by Meadowsend Timberland Limited, LLC, (MTL) and Iberdrola Renewables — the property owner and prospective developer, respectively — on July 6 at Grafton Ponds.
Residents who attended came armed with questions, but over the course of 2½ hours, “We didn’t hear anything new,” said Liisa Kissel, a leader in the opposition to the project.
There was one thing, though.
Iberdrola Communications Manager Paul Copleman assured residents that if the town votes against the project, the company will abide by voters’ wishes.
Remaining unanswered is the question of whether the developers will continue to pursue wind-turbine development on the Windham side of the Stiles Brook project should Grafton vote down the wind project at some point.
Windham Selectboard Chair Mary Boyer said that town also has unanswered questions.
“We have not gotten any new and useful information,” she told The Commons by email. “The only info they have passed along is their timeline, which although interesting, avoids our more important questions.”
In spite of Meadowsend being located in Windham, she said their contacts with the forestry company “have been what you see in the minutes and our attendance at their ‘informational meetings.’”
Windham’s approach to the Stiles Brook project is through the town’s new town plan, “our published legal document regarding land use in Windham for the next five years,” Boyer said.
The plan, approved in 2014, lays out stringent guidelines and conditions for renewable energy development, stressing small, “community-scale” projects as being most favorable.
Clearly addressing gaps in the former town plan that did not specifically address the Stiles Brook project, the updated plan now pays close and lengthy attention to protecting the town’s natural resources. Its energy section defines Windham’s acceptable renewable energy development and urges it be kept to a “community-scale” level.
The new plan details ridgeline water resources and headwaters, and it includes a section on “noise” within the Natural Resources segment. Wind is considered an “air resource,” according to Boyer.
The energy section of the town plan calls for conditions on renewable-energy development, including wind energy.
Besides size and siting, wind turbines must come in under acceptable and set noise levels; shadow flicker created by rotor blades of wind turbines on residential buildings must be avoided; and such a facility is not to be lit artificially.
“Substation lighting should be the minimum necessary for site monitoring and security, should be cast downward, and must not result in light trespass or glare on adjoining properties.”
Grafton’s town plan is still undergoing revision.
But in the meantime, in June, the Grafton Selectboard formed a Wind Information Subcommittee, tasked to collect, collate, and review questions about the Stiles Brook project.
At its meeting on July 21, the subcommittee reviewed the questions, but it was unclear how they would be managed from there. Subcommittee chair and board member Ron Pillette, told The Commons that the Selectboard would make a decision at its August meeting.
Meadowsend owns 5,023 acres on a rough plateau above Stiles Brook and atop Burt Hill. The site for the Stiles Brook project straddles Windham and Grafton.
Copleman said that with the terrain being a plateau and not a ridgeline, its irregularity disrupts wind flow. While Iberdrola officials are confident enough to continue with the current data from the past three years, “to prudently move forward, we need huge amounts of information.”
According to Copleman, the additional data will be used to determine the best turbine model selection for that location.
In addition, the company’s civil engineers will examine how the energy collected will be delivered into the regional tower system, how far apart the 20 to 30 projected turbines will be situated, and whether a substation will have to be built.
The company will also conduct a comprehensive boundary survey to determine easements and study the terrain in more detail. A topographical survey of the parcel and aerial surveys will help to map the terrain, Copleman said.
Iberdrola will look at the road network and how it will connect to the site and existing roads, and it will evaluate whether an electrical system needs to be built.
“It all ties together to form a very complex design for a complex project,” Copleman said, “and the location is going to determine how many turbines there might be.”
Copleman said that there is insufficient information to answer a lot of the residents’ questions, pointing to the project timeline, which spans nine years.
Laid out in stages, the timeline shows three years of MET data collection and community discussions, one year field studies (2015), and then the CPG permitting and appeals process for the development of the wind farm taking three years.
Copleman said with the extended MET permit, if the permitting and appeals process go smoothly, construction of the wind turbines could begin by 2019.
In his conversation with The Commons, Copleman confirmed Iberdrola’s July 6 Grafton Ponds pledge.
“The process and precedent makes an affirmative local vote absolutely necessary,” which will, in turn, determine “how we’ll proceed.”
When asked “if the town took a vote tomorrow,” if Iberdrola would still respect that vote, Copleman replied, “We would want the towns to vote on a thoroughly-thought-out-and-fully-baked proposal.” The company plans to present such a proposal to both towns, most likely in the fall of 2016.
The proposal will include the study assessments from the MET towers and the studies, surveys, and assessments from this summer.
When asked about the controversy and divisiveness within both communities that has characterized community response to the announcement of the Stiles Brook Wind farm project in 2012, Copleman said Iberdrola sees itself as a partner with communities nationwide — more than 50 of them — where its wind farms are located.
He stressed, “Our plan with projects is to be the long-term owner and operator,” with a view to the community as an important partner. “We will be neighbors in that community for a very long time.”
As information is gathered and assessed, community meetings like the one at Grafton Ponds will take place. The company is still “looking at a project which is years away from breaking ground, even if all goes successfully.”
Copleman said that, other than the MET tower data collection, “there is not much happening” with the project at this point.
The company has begun environmental studies and when the assessments of those studies are complete, “we fully intend to share publicly, and have more meetings,” he said.
Studies to be carried out this summer include a raptor migration survey; a bat acoustic monitoring study; a breeding bird survey; a rare, threatened, and endangered plants survey; winter habitat surveys; a wetlands, water body delineation, and stream assessment; and an engineering design that uses specific site information and collected data in accordance with Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Stormwater Management Program guidelines. In addition, other studies will include an archaeological study, visual assessment, a sound assessment, a shadow assessment, and architectural and historic structures surveys.
Iberdrola and environmental consultants “coordinate carefully with appropriate state agencies providing direction,” throughout the environmental study process, Copleman explained.
Residents on both sides of the Stiles Brook project have expressed several concerns for the approximately 385 homes within two miles of the project.
Kissel, an organizer of Friends of Grafton’s Heritage, a grassroots group concerned about the negative impacts of a potential large-scale wind project, said it is “unprecedented” to site a wind farm in such a high-density residential area.
She said that Windham and Grafton have a higher density of residential properties than many other areas in the state.
Residents have also raised concerns that the headwaters of three major southeastern rivers — the West River, the Saxtons River, and the Williams River — originate at the location of the Stiles Brook wind project.
Kissel also cited the propensity for this particular location to attract microcells of extreme weather. The frequency of such weather events has been increasing, however unpredictably, as the climate changes. Grafton was hard hit in 2011 when Tropical Storm Irene came through; and when its roads washed out, the town was cut off completely for four days.
Sound assessments and resulting property devaluation have also been a concern to residents in both Windham and Grafton.
There are conflicting reports on the correlation of, or even the existence of, a connection between the effects of living near a turbine and property values declining.
Much of the data is anecdotal from residents living near existing wind projects in northeastern Vermont and New York state. Residents have complained of illness, anxiety, and sleeplessness, citing the low-frequency vibrations of the moving turbines and the blinking lights atop the towers.
The industry experts, however, do not concur.
One of the questions Grafton residents have is what a wind farm will look like: how many turbines, where they will be located, how tall they will be, and how much area the site will consume.
These details should emerge when the engineering design is completed next spring based on studies this summer. The engineering design will be overseen by the Stormwater Management Program to minimize adverse impacts on runoff and flooding.
Copleman said, “The development of the proposal is lengthy and transparent for this reason: we invite the questions, and there is a process for which we are pressed on concerns. And it takes years to do that. That’s not an accident for such serious undertakings.”
“We want to come in front of people and answer questions,” he said.