SWANTON — Travis and Ashley Belisle plan to erect seven wind turbines on Rocky Ridge, a mile-long slope that they own in Swanton near the St. Albans Town line.
Travis has lived around Swanton his entire life. A graduate of Bellows Free Academy – St. Albans, he spent his early years working at Sticks & Stuff, the building goods store co-owned by his father.
Now the proprietor of Rocky Ridge Construction and living in his father’s former home with his wife, Ashley, the couple is looking to remake the ridgeline that overlooks much of southeastern Swanton, St. Albans, and Fairfield.
In an interview with the Messenger, Belisle explained his reasoning for wanting to develop the ridgeline. “We are local business-owners who understand the need for locally produced, clean, sustainable, and affordable energy,” he said.
“We want to do this to make a contribution to our community’s clean energy future and help achieve the state’s renewable energy goals.”
“Nothing gets better if we don’t do our part.”
Belisle’s project ran into strong headwinds right out of the gate when a planned, informative meeting left many of his neighbor’s angry and hurt.
“I really wanted to be open and transparent and answer their questions,” Belisle explained. “But it quickly turned into an ‘attack Travis’ kind of situation. Which is really too bad.””
Many of Belisle’s neighbors purchased their homes from him within the past few years. Belisle said that when he sold the homes, he made sure the buyers were made well aware of what he was planning for the ridgeline. “I told them I was looking at putting houses up there, logging, quarrying, and wind generation,”
Belisle said. “Everyone knew what I meant by wind farm. I made it clear because I didn’t want anyone to feel like was going behind their back or anything,” Belisle said.
But many people, from three towns will be affected, to some degree, by the turbines that Belisle plans to install. They report worries about the project devaluing their homes, keeping them awake with the noise and flickers of light, and impact on wetlands and wildlife.
“They’re all working people, good people, and I understand they are concerned, but I think a lot of their concerns are based on bad information,” Belisle said.
“Our home is only a few hundred feet farther than the house closest to the project,” Ashley Belisle said. “We don’t want anything that would damage our health or well-being being put up on that ridgeline either. We have as much of an interest as anyone else in making sure this project is done right.”
Review of Belisle’s wind project will be done by Vermont’s Public Service Board (PSB), a quasi-judicial group that regulates utilities and electrical generation. Projects like Swanton Wind are permitted at the state, rather than local level, because the legislature decided that their impacts are felt statewide.
“The burden of proof is on us. The PSB, Agency of Natural Resources (ANR), and the Public Service Department (PSD) will ask us questions and we will have to provide responses and prove that this project won’t have any undue impact on the community or the natural environment,” said Martha Staskus, of Vera Renewables, the consulting firm the Belisles have hired to help permit and construct the project.
Vera Renewable also on worked the Georgia Mountain Wind project.
ANR and PSD are two state agencies’ whose job it is to provide accountability and make sure developers do their research, Staskus said.
ANR will require Swanton Wind to map out wetlands and habitat areas and have them prove the locations and operation of the wind turbines will not damage these areas.
“We will have to build our roads and foundations to avoid the Class II wetlands on that ridge and adjust placement to suit. We’d like to build seven turbines on the ridge, but there may not be room for that after mapping out the areas,” Staskus said.
The project also will be compelled to do noise studies and make adjustments to suit.
If the acoustics demand it, the project may be required to purchase less productive, but quieter turbines, or to modify and provide extra insulation to muffle the sound.
According to Staskus, the PSB encourages neighbors and communities to speak up and offer their opinions regarding projects seeking permits. They make an effort to give locals a voice in how and whether a project is permitted.
“At Georgia Mountain, the PSB issued the permit with 30 conditions, all of which Georgia Mountain has to meet or the permit could be revoked,” Staskus said.
When asked if any project has been stopped as a result of its neighbors’ objections, Staskus responded, “No.”
Economics “Every project has impacts and benefits,” Belisle said.
Indeed, many in Swanton, including the selectboard, have been asking what benefits the project will confer on the community that hosts it.
According to current estimates, if the project is permitted to be as large as the Belisles hope, it will pay roughly $150,000 to Swanton and $135,000 to the Vermont Education Fund annually.
In 2015, Swanton Town voters approved a general fund budget that raised $300,000 in taxes. Swanton Wind could potentially cover half of that tab on an annual basis.
“Both the state and the town will receive payments from the project,” Staskus explained. “It’s a significant contribution to the host community and to the state. On top of it all, every kilowatt-hour generated will stay in Vermont.”
The Belisles plan to either contract with a power company for the 25-year life of the project, or sell annually to Vermont Electric Power Producers, Inc. (VEPPI). VEPPI purchases its power from renewable resources – mainly hydro dams – and sells it o a prorata basis to in-state power companies.
“The State of Vermont has a goal to be 90 percent renewable by 2050,” Belisle said. “Now I understand people don’t like change.
But what we’re doing is good for the environment. We’re going to be making good, clean, sustainable, affordable energy for Vermonters.”
The project is projected to power about 7,800 Vermont households annually.
“We’re doing this project and we’re going to get it right,” Belisle said.