SWANTON – Swanton Wind, the company that hopes to develop a wind turbine farm here, has stumbled on its first step of the permitting process.
In late 2011, Travis Belisle, working with VERA Renewables, installed a 130-foot meteorological station at the top of Rocky Ridge, which is also the planned site for the turbines. The tower has collected data on wind speeds and current for more than three years. Swanton Wind and its consultants failed to obtain a critical permit from the Public Service Board for the tower.
A Public Service Board (PSB) order, issued on March 9, 2010 requires all applicants planning to construct “temporary meteorological stations” to address the project’s “effect on esthetics, historic sites, air and water purity, the natural environment, and the public health and safety.” Swanton Wind’s Tower was not subject to this scrutiny.
Travis Belisle said that he was unaware that a Certificate of Public Good (CPG, the permit issued by the PSB) was required for the project.
“To be honest with you, I called the town zoning administrator and he said if it was a temporary tower, he did need anything from me,” Belisle said. “If it needs a CPG we’ll get one. I hired VERA Renewables and they’re the ones I’m relying on to do this right. If we made a mistake, we’ll fix it, no matter what it costs.”
The town zoning administrator plays no part in permitting electrical generation facilities or temporary meteorological towers.
Still, it makes little sense for Belisle’s team to dodge the PSB on the meteorological tower. The review process is streamlined and public comment is strictly limited to the tower itself and is not allowed to wander into plans for any future wind generation facility.
And the penalties for failing to acquire a CPG can be onerous.
If the PSB determines that the violation substantially harmed or might have harmed “the public health, safety, or welfare, the interests of utility customers, [or] the environment,” it could impose a penalty of $40,000 on the project plus an additional $10,000 per day if the violation is continuing.” The total penalty is capped at the larger of $100,000 or one one-hundredth of the gross revenues of the project.
“It’s going to cost me $1.2 to $1.5 million just to permit this project,” Belisle said. “It makes no sense to ignore this first step.”
Martha Staskus of VERA (Vermont Environmental Research Associates) Renewables, which is working on the project with Belisle, said that there was confusion about the changing requirements around 2010 and 2011.
“At the time there was some question of whether a CPG was required for a project like Travis’s,” she said.
“I don’t think anyone at the time  thought that this would be a large, commercial wind project. At that time, we were planning a smaller, net-metered project, which didn’t need a CPG. No one thought it would be windy enough on a 900-foot hill top for a project this size. But technology has improved a lot since then and we can do a lot more on this site.”
“There was no intention to not follow the rule,” she said.
Staskus said that VERA is now making arrangements to bring the tower down. She hopes it will be done by early August. “All that we need the tower for is acoustic monitoring equipment which will be re-sited at tree canopy level,” she said.
Staskus confirmed that they have gathered all of the wind data they need to assess the viability of the project.
At least two neighbors feel that a fine and removal of a now superfluous tower is not enough penalty for Belisle. Some of them purchase their homes after 2011 when the tower was installed.
Many have complained that Belisle did not give them fair notice of his plans for the ridgeline, though Belisle disputes that.
Said Dustin Lang: “He’s been flying under the radar, collecting data, without the public being told about it for years now. We’ve missed an opportunity to object and to prepare for what is coming. To me, should be like a trial. If evidence is gathered illegally, he shouldn’t be allowed to use it. He should have to start over from square one.”