GRAFTON — A developer says preliminary environmental studies — including detailed assessments of noise and visual impacts — have shown no red flags for the proposed 28-turbine, 96.6-megawatt Stiles Brook Wind Project in Windham County.
But no scientific studies are needed to gauge the level of skepticism some residents feel about the project. Even as wind developer Iberdrola Renewables and its consultants presented new findings inside the crowded Grafton Elementary School gym Tuesday night, some residents said they believed little of what they were hearing.
“I think it’s unsurprising that the goal is to make it seem as benign as possible,” said Skip Lisle, a nearby resident and Grafton Selectboard member who wore a “Stop wind scam” pin.
Iberdrola is working to finalize its Stiles Brook plans later this year. As Tuesday’s meeting wound down, spokesman Art Sasse said the company is open to hosting more workshops and conducting further studies — up to a point.
“Part of what we’re doing with this process is trying to listen to the community,” Sasse said. “The folks that have legitimate concerns — who aren’t here just to validate their fears, but to validate facts — those are the folks we want to work with.”
The Stiles Brook project would be Windham County’s first turbine site and Vermont’s biggest. Iberdrola wants to place 20 turbines in the town of Windham and eight in Grafton, but all would be located on land owned by New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd.
Supporters say the project will boost renewable energy efforts in Vermont, and Meadowsend has said the turbines will help the company continue to maintain the 5,000-acre Stiles Brook tract as a working forestland. Additionally, both towns could see a financial windfall from the project: When plans were unveiled last fall, Iberdrola estimated combined annual payments of $1 million to Windham and Grafton.
But vehement opposition has sprung up. Some worry that the turbines — with the top blade tip rising 492 feet above the ground — will hurt their home values and their health while irrevocably damaging the ridge separating the two towns.
Iberdrola is eyeing construction at Stiles Brook starting in 2019, but the company has not filed for a state certificate of public good or for a connection to the power grid via ISO New England, the grid manager. Tuesday’s meeting was scheduled to offer the latest results of environmental assessments.
Standing before an array of photographs and a large map at one end of the gym, Iberdrola consultants said they’ve used computer modeling and travels around the two towns to determine that the Stiles Brook turbines would not be widely visible. Patrick Heaton, a principal with Syracuse, New York-based Environmental Design & Research, said 62 percent of the landscape is shielded from the project by topography alone.
“Because of the topography in this area — the ridges — the potential visibility of this project is very limited relative to other projects,” Heaton said.
When forest cover is factored in, he added, projected turbine visibility decreases by an even greater degree. “Our model extended out to 10 miles around this project,” Heaton said. “Less than 2 percent of that area is predicted as having views of the project.”
Nearby, another map showed potential noise impacts from the wind turbines. Mark Bastasch, of Colorado-based consultant CH2M, said the state’s allowable threshold is 45 decibels, and his “site-specific sound model” shows that no homes would experience turbine sound exceeding that level.
In fact, his mapping showed most homes are outside the 40-decibel range. To give a sense of perspective on those sound levels, Bastasch positioned a microphone nearby that was measuring 70 decibels of noise at his booth.
At Stiles Brook, “it looks like we’re going to be within compliance of the Vermont standard, and that’s really what we’re focusing on,” Bastasch said.
Other topics covered at Tuesday’s workshop included stormwater and wetlands impacts; engineering, construction and transmission issues; and a reiteration of municipal financial benefits from the Stiles Brook project. Among those roaming the room was Jeremy Turner, Meadowsend’s managing forester, who said he is satisfied with Iberdrola’s studies so far.
“Clearly, there’s a tremendous amount of work and research and science that’s occurring on the ground,” Turner said.
Turner added that Stiles Brook is one of the best spots in the region for wind power “given the topography, given the location, given the size, given the single ownership — all these things that separate it and make it a good site.”
Many dispute that assessment, including anti-turbine activist Annette Smith, executive director of Danby-based Vermonters for a Clean Environment. “How many lawyers and lobbyists does it take to sell a wind project?” Smith asked Tuesday, nodding toward Iberdrola representatives milling around the Grafton gym.
Smith was particularly concerned about what she heard at the noise impact booth. She noted that Bastasch has been affiliated with Iberdrola’s Hardscrabble Wind Power Project in Herkimer County, New York, where some neighbors have sued over the turbines.
“This (noise) information that’s being put out here is highly disturbing to me, because it is not reflective of our real-world experiences in Vermont,” Smith said.
She also questioned why the Stiles Brook consultant wasn’t considering the potential impacts of low-frequency “infrasound” at the site. Some contend that infrasound can damage the health of turbine neighbors, but an Iberdrola handout at Tuesday’s meeting said “multiple independent studies” have shown no such link.
From his perspective as a consultant, Bastasch said he is “not really aware of any public health agency coming out and establishing a criteria or a threshold (for infrasound) that we would need to focus on.”
Lisle, who lives about 1.5 miles from where the turbines are proposed, said he’s concerned about infrasound as well as aesthetic impacts. He can see Iberdrola’s meteorological testing towers at Stiles Brook and believes the much larger turbines will be prominently visible from his home.
“It means the loss of hundreds of thousands of dollars in property value,” Lisle said.
Liisa Kissel, a director of the anti-turbine organization Grafton Woodlands Group, said she departed Tuesday’s meeting with unanswered questions about noise, aesthetics, stormwater, decommissioning, construction impacts and other issues. “Overall, I was left with more concerns than before,” Kissel said.
The same could be said of former Windham County state Sen. Peter Galbraith, who has launched a gubernatorial run based in part on his opposition to new turbine projects in Vermont. “You’re destroying the ecosystem for very little energy gain,” Galbraith said as he worked the crowd Tuesday. “It doesn’t make sense.”
It remains to be seen whether a majority of Windham and Grafton residents feel that way. Iberdrola administrators have said they will abide by the results of community votes expected later this year.
“I think we’re feeling very confident that the project is on the right path,” Sasse said. “We’re feeling very good about an opportunity to work with the community to continue to tweak and help the project plan be the best possible plan for the community and for the resource itself.”