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Harnessing the wind on Grandpa’s Knob sparks controversy

Of all the ridgelines in all of Vermont, Reunion Power had to pick Grandpa's Knob. And why not? On the surface, the ridge is every wind developer's dream, offering a steady breeze at an acceptable speed in close proximity to an electric substation and a long stretch of privately held land that can be optioned for use.

However, just below the surface, there are many obstacles.
Reunion Power Managing Director Steve Eisenberg has traveled to local meetings in West Rutland, Castleton, Hubbardton and Pittsford, the four towns affected by the proposed 15 to 20 turbine wind project encompassing 4,500 acres along the Grandpa's Knob ridgeline.

Attendance at these meetings has been impressive with over 100 people regularly showing up. These crowds, however, have not come to hear Eisenberg's presentation as much as to voice their opposition to the project.

Before diving into the many "sticking points," here is a brief review of the proposed development.

NUTS & BOLTS
• The project would be built after acquiring a long-term easement from roughly 15 individuals and group landowners. It is estimated that about 3 percent, or 150 acres, out of the 4,500 acres, would be used or disturbed for the project to build access roads, transmission lines, turbine sites and a maintenance facility.
• Reunion Power hopes to build up to 20 wind turbines roughly 500-feet tall from base to tip of blade. There will be three blades per turbine about 175-feet long.
• With 20 turbines, Reunion estimates they will be able to generate 50 megawatts of power. Given the meteorological data collected, Eisenberg said the project would generate 140,000 megawatt hours of electricity annually, enough to power half of the households in Rutland County based on statistics from the Vermont Department of Public Service. Reunion hopes to obtain long-term power purchase agreements with local utilities.
• If approved, the project would cost roughly $100 million to build. Eisenberg estimates that Reunion would pay $1 million a year in taxes, including $500,000 in property taxes and payments to the four host communities. He also estimates that the company would pay $420,000 a year to the state education fund.
• Reunion will not receive any federal subsidies on the project. Eisenberg said there is a federal tax credit of $0.022 per kilowatt hour that Reunion can claim for 10 years once the project is built and operational. Based on Eisenberg's projections that the project will generate 140,000-kilowatt hours of electricity annually, over 10 years, Reunion would earn $3,080 a year against its federal taxes, or $30,800 over the maximum 10-year tax credit period.

STICKING POINTS

THE ENVIRONMENT
But one big issue opponents have with Reunion Power is the perceived rejection of information from the state Agency of Natural Resources (ANR) regarding the environmental impacts on the Grandpas' Knob ridgeline should the project be built. ANR has met with Eisenberg and his consultants many times over the last 10 months.

At issue is ANR's identification of the habitat area of Grandpa's knob as a rare and irreplaceable natural area (RINA) containing numerous rare species and state-significant natural communities. The agency recently completed a habitat block rating system for the entire state, and the Grandpa's Knob habitat block scored 11th in the state out of 4,055 blocks total, and 2nd in the Taconic range only to the Bomoseen block as a RINA.

Eisenberg in his presentation said in his opinion, "It seems that large blocks of privately-held land automatically ranks very high" in the ANR habitat blocking system. "It does not speak to specific habitat, wetlands, etcetera. With the exception of bats, there are no details," he said.

Reunion and its consultants contend that their studies of the area are more extensive than those done by ANR, at this point. "They will catch up to us, but at this point, their desktop (habitat block) study is the sole source of determining this as an irreplaceable natural area," Eisenberg said.
"ANR's position that the area is rare and significant is something the PSB will consider, but it's not the only thing they will consider," Eisenberg added. "As we understand it and true to actual environmental impacts, a project could be designed and constructed without undo environmental impact on the ridgeline." Reunion is required to meet a standard that will not create "undo impact" on the area.

PROPERTY VALUES
Many letters to the editor in local papers and residents at area select board meetings have urged local officials to require a property value guarantee from Reunion to protect homeowners should the project be built. Opponents claim that studies in Lempster, N.H. area saw a sharp decline in property values once the wind farm there was built.

Eisenberg sited a University of New Hampshire study done in January 2012 that found "no evidence that the Lempster project has had a consistent… significant impact on property values. That study was conducted over six years and included 2,600 property sales.

Opponents contend that abandoned homes are not included in that survey and that other studies indicate up to a 40 percent loss of property values in homes in the area of a wind turbine project.
Eisenberg said he would not consider including a property value guarantee for homeowners in the area because there are too many variables that affect property values above and beyond the wind project.

"I am not in the real estate business," he said. "Any kind of a guarantee would be impossible to implement. There are far too many factors, loss of job, changing economic climate… There is no way we or the towns could frame a guarantee."

AESTHETICS
Aesthetics of the ridgeline continues to be one of the largest sticking points for residents of the four affected towns. Given that the vast majority of Vermonters support reunable energy projects, wind and solar being among the most popular, it begs the question of whether opposition falls under the "as long as it's not in my back yard" syndrome. Pittsford resident Jim Rademacher, however, points to such projects being in conflict with state aesthetic values.

"Vermont is the state that has banned bill boards as obtrusive to the values of what Vermont is.  Those 500-foot turbines will be obtrusive to our priceless ridge," said Rademacher. "When you come home to Pittsford from either the north or the south, it is that ridge that greets you and welcomes you home.  It is a view and an experience that we will never tire of nor get used to… With all sincerity, I beg you, do whatever you can to prevent those 500 ft monsters from occupying our beloved and priceless ridge line," he continued addressing the Pittsford Select Board.

Not everyone thinks the turbines will negatively affect aesthetics. Pittsford Selectman Joe Gagnon said he's old enough to remember the original wind tower built on Grandpa's Knob in 1941. It was the first wind turbine ever built, and it operated until 1943, when a bearing issue shut it down for two years. The 175-foot wind tower was back online in early March 1945, but a blade failure just weeks later led to the turbine's dismantling.

Gagnon said that original turbine didn't bother him and, in fact, he finds wind turbines "quite interesting" especially after visiting a wind project in western New York State.

"Who's to say the tourists won't come and see the windmills the way they come and see the leaves change?" he asked. I urge everyone with concerns to see (a turbine project) for yourself."
Eisenberg echoed that sentiment in his presentation.

"The best thing you can do is go and visit a wind project," he said. "Talk to people, touch a turbine, get information firsthand, not through the internet. There is no substitute for your own perceptions."

THE PUBLIC SERVICE BOARD
On all things power-related in the state of Vermont, it is the three-member Public Service Board that has the final say as to whether a project is considered "in the public good."

Eisenberg said Reunion Power hopes to file its application for a Certificate of Public Good (CPG) later this year. If approved, the CPG could be issued in late 2013, Eisenberg said, and with an expected eight-month construction period, the wind project could be generating power as early as the end of 2014.

But there are a lot of hoops to jump through before construction can even be considered. The PSB has a formidable and lengthy application and review process, and Reunion Power must submit all manner of studies regarding birds, bats, wildlife, wetlands, trees, rare plants, noise, housing, cultural and historical, and visual impact. Eisenberg said the company has engaged a list of consultants that are working on these various studies in preparation to file with the PSB.

Once the application is filed, notice will go out to the towns and the regional planning commissions within 10 miles of the project site. There will be pre-hearing conferences. The PSB and staff will conduct a site visit. Then there will be a series of public hearings where the public may present comments and concerns to the PBS. Then there is a technical hearing with testimony from expert witnesses, ending will the submittal of briefs and a final review by the PSB.

An approval by the PSB often comes with a number of conditions.

"It's a very democratic process and that's what we will follow," Eisenberg said. "It's a process that can go on for a very long time."

LOCAL CONTROL
Pittsford residents overwhelmingly wanted to vote on the issue, but Pittsford Select Board Chair Hank Pelkey said it wouldn't matter.

"We got a legal opinion on that," he said May 24. "Regardless of what we do, the vote is meaningless. The PSB has the final say, not the town." But the PSB does consider the opinion of each town's select board before approving or denying the project's application for a Certificate of Public Good.

Another way for towns to weigh in on such projects is the Town Plan, says Annette Smith, an environmental activist from Danby. She sits on the Rutland Regional Planning Commission and is
the executive director of the non-profit Vermonters for a Clean Environment.

"You do have a voice and it's in your town plan," she said. "The PSB wants to see clear and specific language about the direction the town wants to take." She said it's up to the town's people to ask the planning commission to amend the town plan.

All four towns are now discussing the possibility of openning their town plans for review. West Rutland's town plan currently states the town is in favor of renewable energy, but prohibits development on the ridgeline. Residents hope revisions will make their intentions even more clear for the PSB.

"I want to believe that our select board members in our towns... will listen to this exponentially growing group of taxpayers and residents who do not want this project in our towns," said Lisa Wright Garcia, in a recent letter to the editor. Garcia is a landowner in West Rutland and Pittsford who runs a small scale sugaring, farming and orcharding operation. "I want to believe the 'greater good' will be carried out - and the 'greater good' in this case cannot possibly be allowing a project that will cause 'undue adverse impacts' to proceed," she said.

The Rutland Regional Planning Commission will host a panel discussion next week, focusing on local and municipal involvement through the Act 248 process. The discussion will be at the Rutland Intermediate School auditorium June 28 starting at 6 p.m.

Tagged: Grandpa's Knob, wind power