Board rejects wind project
By LOUIS PORTER Vermont Press Bureau | July 18,2006
MONTPELIER - The wind power project proposed for an East Haven ridgeline has been turned down by the Public Service Board, in large part because of the potential danger to birds and bats from spinning turbine blades.
That decision will likely be final, unless developers appeal the decision to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Supporters of the four-turbine, six-megawatt project had worried that a rejection would send a signal to renewable energy developers that they are not welcome in the state.
However, some advocates, and the board, said that should not be the case. In fact, the wording is "a favorable wind" for such development in Vermont, said Andrew Perchlik of Renewable Energy Vermont. That is because the board rejected part of hearing officer's Kurt Janson March recommendation against the project. However, the Public Service Board still found enough wanting in the application to deny the permit.
The developers, Matthew Rubin and David Rapaport, "failed to provide sufficient evidence concerning the impacts of the proposed project on bats and birds ... (and) failed to conduct studies necessary to assess those potential impacts," according to the board's decision.
The developers said they are still reviewing the decision and declined to comment.
Some supporters of renewable energy development in the state said they were disappointed in the ruling and worried about what it might mean in the future.
"I am disappointed a permit was not issued," said Sandra Levine, a lawyer for the Conservation Law Foundation. "If we are going to reduce pollution and global warming, we need to do all we can to allow wind projects to go forward."
After Chairman James Volz recused himself from the case, and only the two other members of the board ruled on the matter.
They rejected one of the most controversial reasons Janson recommended against approving the project - that it would damage the use of public land surrounding the site.
Many of the users of those lands, for instance hunters and snowmobilers, would not be prevented from doing so by the proposed project, the board noted.
"The benefits of this renewable energy project are somewhat greater, and its impacts on the public investment less, than the hearing officer determined," board members wrote.
However, motivated in large part because of the possible risk to bird and resident bat populations, the board still denied the application.
"This is something the petitioner never did attempt to resolve in a substantive way. You do that at your peril," said Commissioner of Public Service David O'Brien.
But the developers argued that that the 329-foot turbines were not a major danger to birds and bats in the area.
Rep. Robert Dostis, D-Waterbury, chairman of the Natural Resources and Energy Committee, said the decision could slow the state's progress towards replacing the bulk of its energy supply contracts, which begin to expire within a decade, with renewables.
"It's very discouraging when you consider the need for Vermont to produce renewable energy in the state," Dostis said. The site, a former Cold War radar installation, was already developed and has an access road into it, he pointed out.
But Perchlik said that, although his group disagrees with the ruling in the East Haven case, since the board rejected the "aesthetic" arguments against the project, the decision may be a "green light" to other wind developers considering as many as a half-dozen projects in the state.
Aesthetic and recreational arguments were the most worrisome ones for developers to face, he said.
"It could have really shut the door on wind farms in Vermont," Perchlik said. The ruling may also skew projects towards the large end, since those developers have the money, expertise and time to invest in decommissioning funds and animal impact studies, he said.
The board also went out of its way to allay fears that a denial would send a signal that renewable energy projects could not be built in Vermont.
"Neither the hearing officer's recommendations, nor our own ultimate decision should be read as a rejection of the possibility of siting wind turbines on any Vermont ridgeline," the board wrote.
And Rep. Richard Hube, R-Londonderry, long an opponent of a wind project proposed, but since put on hold, in his part of the state, said that it Vermonters should be careful how they view such projects.
"I don't think the people of Vermont have any idea how big these things are," he added. "It is inconsistent with what I see as the landscape of the state of Vermont."
After all, the Bennington Battle Monument is only 306 feet high, he said.
O'Brien said his department, which supported the project, considered it something of a "pilot project" for wind development in Vermont. He praised how the board reached its decision, however.
Ultimately, the board ruled against the East Haven project because of concerns raised in part by the Agency of Natural Resources. But it agreed with his department that the potential impact of the project on the 132,800 acres of preserved land around East Mountain were not great enough to warrant its denial, O'Brien pointed out.
"The board agreed with our fundamental argument on the impact on public lands and aesthetics," O'Brien said.
And he warned that those proposing future wind projects should learn from the board's decision.
"I think renewable energy developers would be very wise to read this order," O'Brien said.
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