GRAFTON – Town officials say they may not meet a developer-imposed deadline to vote on the controversial Stiles Brook Wind Project proposal.
Developer Iberdrola Renewables has said it will abide by the results of a November vote from Windham and Grafton residents on whether the 28-turbine project – which would be the state’s largest turbine site – should proceed.
While Windham has committed to a Nov. 8 vote, Grafton Selectboard Chairman Ron Pilette says he doesn’t think residents will have all the information they need by Election Day. The vote could be postponed, town officials have said, until later this year or early next year.
Pilette acknowledged, though, that Iberdrola might ignore any Stiles Brook vote not held in November.
“There’s always been that possibility. So certainly, we’re running a certain risk,” he said. “On the other hand, that November date is something that (the developer) just told us to do.”
Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman said the company still is considering whether it would heed the results of a later vote.
“We stand behind what we’ve been stating publicly for more than a year now – that we would honor a fair vote by the two towns’ legally registered voters in the November election, as there is no better opportunity to hear from Vermont residents than a presidential general election,” Copleman said.
Iberdrola has been working for years to develop the Stiles Brook project, which would be located on forested land owned by New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd.
The turbines would be capable of producing 96.6 megawatts of renewable power in a state that places a high priority on boosting its renewable portfolio. Additionally, Iberdrola has promised that the project will pump a combined $1 million annually into the two towns’ coffers.
But there has been fierce opposition among some residents who question the project’s impacts on the environment, property values and human health. Iberdrola has battled back, saying those critics are spreading false information.
The company could bypass the towns entirely, since it’s up to the Vermont Public Service Board to issue a certificate of public good for Stiles Brook. But Iberdrola has committed itself to heeding a legal, Australian Ballot election in November in each town.
The company also has said it is waiting to file for a state certificate of public good until after the towns vote.
On Tuesday, however, Grafton’s Selectboard voted 3-1 to send a letter to Iberdrola advising the company that “we may very well not be ready to vote in November,” Pilette said.
“What we want to know is, will they honor the results of the vote even if it is later?” Pilette said.
The reason for the delay, Pilette said, is that Grafton’s town plan is in the final stages of revision. Currently, he said, the plan is a decade old and “has all of two lines about renewable energy.”
With the Legislature having passed a law this year that gives towns the opportunity to have greater influence on energy siting, Pilette said a new plan is critically important in Grafton. Furthermore, he said the plan likely will include town-endorsed energy principles that may help guide voters in their decision about Stiles Brook.
“I really think it’s absolutely necessary to have the town plan in place before we vote,” Pilette said. “I don’t think we’d be doing our due diligence (without a plan).”
A draft of the new, revised town plan was not available for Tuesday’s Selectboard meeting. Pilette is hoping the majority of the Grafton Planning Commission’s draft document will be ready in the coming weeks, though the energy section of the document may not be done until early October.
That leaves little time for review and possible revision before Election Day. Asked about a Stiles Brook vote on Nov. 8, Pilette said, “I don’t think we’ll be ready.”
From Iberdrola’s standpoint, a postponed vote “seems to be a delay tactic designed to lower turnout,” Copleman said.
“Does the Grafton Selectboard think that as many people will show up to vote during the holiday season as they would on Election Day?” Copleman asked. “The majority of both towns’ Selectboard members seem to be working to undermine fair and equitable elections, so we need time to evaluate our options.”
In addition to Australian Ballot votes on Stiles Brook, both towns also are soliciting input from nonresident second-home owners, who cannot participate in formal, legal balloting because they are not full-time residents.
The turbine opposition group Friends of Windham has announced plans to mail surveys about the wind project to all non-resident property owners. Those surveys are due to be returned to the nonprofit by Oct. 7 and will be opened and counted by the Selectboard.
In Grafton, the town is sending Stiles Brook surveys in separate mailings to residents and nonresident property owners, Pilette said.
“This will be the opportunity for us to hear from the nonresident taxpayers, and to get a sense from everyone on whether they’re still undecided or need more information,” he said.