SHEFFIELD - Green power in today's environmentally sensitive community is commonly regarded as energy generated by a renewable energy source.
But those opposing industrial wind farms here and elsewhere are learning that green power has another kind of application, steeped in history, that has less to do with the whirring blades of a wind turbine and more to do with a cash payoff to keep dissenters quiet.
On Wednesday, October 19, the Supreme Court will hear what amounts to a last ditch argument by opponents to derail the Sheffield wind project. Briefly put, opponents are appealing a storm water discharge permit granted by the state, contending the project's safeguards will not protect high elevation streams and the environment.
On the face of it, the argument sounds like a long shot that's unlikely to prevail. Except that, months prior to the Supreme Court hearing scheduled for this week, First Wind tried to end the appeal with a cash settlement that, according to one source, jumped to $2-million in a failed effort by the company to reboot negotiations.
Throughout negotiations, however, the company's offer stretched beyond the appeal. In addition to dropping their appeal, the members of the suit would have been required to sign off on a sound easement against their property. A gag order would have prevented them from talking about it.
Eight people signed the appeal to take First Wind and the Agency of Natural Resources to court over the stormwater discharge permit.
Roughly a couple months before the case was to go before the Environmental Court, negotiations got underway in the fall of 2009 to find a settlement.
From September on there were meetings in St. Johnsbury and in the church across from the East Burke Post Office, according to Rob Pforzheimer of Sutton, a member of the Ridge Protectors and one of the group's most persistent critics of big wind.
Throughout the meetings, Mr. Pforzheimer maintained a take-no-prisoners attitude. He refused to shake hands at one of the meetings at the East Burke church, a transgression that may have gotten him banned from a subsequent meeting. His opposition to any deal never wavered.
"My goal was to scuttle any agreement," he said during interviews last week.
According to the terms of the easement - which is posted on the Internet by the anti-wind forces known as the Industrial Wind Action Group - landowners would have been subjected to a gag order that would have prevented them from opposing the Sheffield project.
"For a period of twenty years from the date of the Settlement Agreement, The Group and each Group member shall take no action which would directly or indirectly tend to oppose, could reasonably be expected to reflect unfavorably upon, or otherwise adversely affect the Sheffield Wind Project, Vermont Wind, or any entity controlling, under common control with, or controlled by Vermont Wind."
Up to $500,000 would have been distributed by the company over a 20-year period, according to the terms of the proposed agreement.
The easements would have followed the land, which means that if ownership of a property changed hands, the easement would remain in effect. Nor would landowners be free to talk openly about the financial terms of the deal.
Payments, according to the agreement, would be "based on each Group member's proximity to the project."
The negotiation sessions were wrapped in secrecy, as everyone who attended one had to sign an agreement of confidentiality. Similar restrictions were imposed on negotiations that First Wind held in Mar Hills, Maine, with 16 or so families who had taken the company to court because of claims against the wind project there, including noise complaints.
Mike Gosselin, who calls himself a "hobby farmer," lives with his wife on East Ridge Road in Mars Hill in a home that is one and two-thirds of a mile from the nearest turbine. In an interview last week, Mr. Gosselin said he met twice with First Wind this year to discuss a suit he has filed over turbine noise. A Vietnam vet who keeps horses, chickens and homing pigeons, he said he is being treated for combat neurosis and a condition known as Military Sexual Trauma.
He said he initiated his suit because the company had broken a promise it made when it first presented the project. "You promised me no noise," he said he told them.
During his discussions with First Wind, Mr. Gosselin said the company introduced a sound easement that would have encumbered his land for 40 years. In pitching an individual settlement, he said the company stressed it was his property and he could do as he chose, even if his decision was not supported by his neighbors.
The talks, however, went nowhere. Mr. Gosselin was not offered any settlement, although the company struck a deal with others in the neighborhood. The settlements ended suits brought by individual neighbors, and included sound easements and payments based on proximity to the turbines, according to Mr. Gosselin.
One of the families contacted last week in Mars Hill declined to comment, citing restrictions in the settlement they signed. They added that the families who were involved in negotiations do not even discuss the terms among themselves.
Among the Mars Hill residents who have signed with the company, there was a sense that it was better to get something than nothing. Or as Mr. Gosselin put it: "A bird in the hand is worth two in the bush."
But while the residents of Mars Hill were pretty much on their own individual hook, the fight in Sheffield has been marshaled and funded by the Ridge Protectors. It turned out to be a group that held its solidarity intact, despite attempts by First Wind to deal with members on an individual basis.
Mr. Pforzheimer, who is not one of the appellants in the suit, said that developers tried to divide and conquer by offering money to individuals named in the suit. But no one broke ranks. Unlike the folks in Mars Hill, they had leverage in the appeal case pending before the Environmental Court.
Still, there was some diverseness when the members of Ridge Protectors took a vote on First Wind's offer, prior to the appeal going forward in December 2009.
According to Mr. Pforzheimer, the offer was rejected by roughly a two-to-one margin. After news of the vote circulated, First Wind attempted to dramatically sweeten the offer, jumping from $500,000 to $2-million, according to Mr. Pforzheimer.
No one from the Ridge Protectors followed it up. After Wednesday's hearing, the final decision will be in the hands of the Supreme Court.
In Mars Hill, Mr. Gosselin said that he alone among the wind project's neighbors is going ahead with his noise suit. But he would rather have another option.
"If they offered me a buyout, I'd take it in a New York minute," he said.