WINDHAM — The proposed Stiles Brook Wind Project is shrinking, but the site's developer is nevertheless promising a bigger financial reward for the would-be host towns of Windham and Grafton.
Iberdrola Renewables has eliminated four of the 28 turbines in the site's original design. The company says the change, which affects only the portion of the project situated in Windham, will make the wind power site less visible and will reduce its noise impacts.
At the same time, Iberdrola has boosted the project's "community benefits" package by 50 percent. The developer now is promising a combined $1.5 million annually to the two towns, and some of that cash would be allocated in the form of "direct partnership payments" doled out to residents to spend as they wish.
Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman said the changes are the company's response to residents' concerns and requests.
"This is really a reflection of the conversations that we've been having," Copleman said outside a crowded Windham Elementary School, where the new details were announced Oct. 4. "We have made an effort, through a four-plus year process, to very transparently engage with folks and solicit feedback."
But Windham Selectboard Chairman Frank Seawright, a vocal critic of the Stiles Brook project, was unimpressed with Iberdrola's new pitch.
"We've been saying from the outset that this is an inappropriate site for such a project," Seawright said. "There's no amount of money that will change that base, bare fact, OK? It just is an inappropriate site."
The Stiles Brook proposal, which has been in the works for more than four years, has spurred intense backlash among those who worry about the turbines' possible negative impacts on aesthetics, property values and human health.
In Windham, where the town plan bans large turbines, officials have clashed often with Iberdrola and have testified before the state Legislature on energy-siting issues. In Grafton, an anti-turbine group established an office on Main Street, and the town's biggest taxpayer — the Windham Foundation — recently announced its opposition to the wind project.
But Iberdrola has lobbied hard for Stiles Brook, accusing critics of spreading false information. The company has touted the project as a major source of renewable energy that can "help mitigate climate change" while also offering a significant financial boost to both towns' coffers.
While the state Public Service Board issues permits for wind projects, Iberdrola has promised to abide by the results of a November vote on the project in the two towns. Both Windham and Grafton have scheduled those votes for Election Day, Nov. 8.
A little over a month before that balloting, Iberdrola called Oct. 4 and Oct. 5 meetings in Windham and Grafton to discuss revisions to the Stiles Brook project.
Grafton still would host eight turbines, the new plans show. But four of the 20 windmills that had been proposed in Windham have disappeared.
At 24 turbines, and with a total power output of 82.8 megawatts, the reconfigured Stiles Brook Wind Project would remain Vermont's largest wind power site. But Iberdrola is framing the changes as an attempt to alleviate local concerns.
"These four in particular were some of the more visible turbines," Copleman said. He added that, "by removing them, there is — from a permitting perspective and, again, from a community feedback perspective — a better sound profile."
Iberdrola's site maps show that a number of the remaining turbines have been shifted slightly. Company representatives say that's partly in response to meteorological data, but it's also an attempt to move some windmills farther from homes.
The redesigned project remains economically viable in spite of its diminished size and power output, Copleman said. "The project ultimately has to make sense for us, but it has to make sense for the community as well," he said. "And we think this is a project that still does that."
New Hampshire-based Meadowsend Timberlands Ltd., which owns the 5,000-acre forest that would host the turbines, has no issue with the changes.
"We have been here and continue to be here to understand what the best siting and best proposal possible is, based on the (wind) resource and the community," said Jeremy Turner, Meadowsend's managing forester.
The new design, Turner said, "is obviously far better, because it takes on-the-ground feedback and incorporates it into the project."
Iberdrola also is incorporating a bigger financial payout into its Stiles Brook plans. The company initially had proposed paying Windham $715,000 annually, and that number has risen to $1 million per year.
The payment is broken down into four categories: Iberdrola would pay $395,000 in property taxes to Windham. That's more than half the town's current budget; there also would be a $105,000 supplemental payment to the town government; Iberdrola would allocate $150,000 annually for "community use," defined by the company as money for "local charities, fire departments and educational scholarships for local children"; and another $350,000 would be budgeted for payments to registered voters "to offset their own expenses, such as education taxes and energy bills," the developer said. In Windham, this equates to a minimum of $1,162 for every voter, according to Iberdrola's calculations.
The logistics of the latter two disbursements — the money for residents and for "community use" — are unclear. Copleman said Iberdrola wouldn't be making payments directly, and the company envisions "some sort of third-party oversight, third-party management" for those monies.
Grafton's economic package also is increasing to $500,000 per year, up from the $285,000 annual payment initially proposed. There would be $230,000 in tax revenues; $30,000 in supplemental payments to the town; $25,000 for use by local nonprofits and for educational scholarships; and $215,000 for payments to residents.
Those financial incentives led to backlash among Stiles Brook opponents. The anti-turbine organization Grafton Woodlands Group labeled it "the latest attempt to exert undue influence upon the upcoming legally warned vote," and Windham activist Nancy Tips said the financial proposition "seems to me to fit the definition of a bribe."
Such accusations made their way to the Vermont attorney general's office in the days after the Windham and Grafton meetings. But Michael Duane, a senior assistant attorney general, reported on Friday that the Iberdrola offer "does not appear to constitute undue influence with regard to our state law."
One key factor in that decision, Duane said, was the fact that Iberdrola would provide a benefit to all residents regardless of their stance on the wind project.
"Since (the company) cannot determine how one voted ... someone who did not vote could take advantage of this partnership payment," Duane said. "Someone who voted no could take advantage of the partnership payment."
Copleman pointed out that Iberdrola's Stiles Brook proposal is not unusual, since "all of our projects that are up and running across the country deliver economic benefits to the community in a variety of ways."
Later in the week, after allegations of bribery surfaced, the company issued an additional statement lamenting that "a small handful of opponents will stop at nothing to try and taint a proposed partnership between our company and these two towns."
"Our current proposal is based on feedback from community members who are frustrated that the tax relief from the project would give a larger break to those with more expensive properties," the statement said. "Our proposal is aimed at equitably distributing economic benefits across both communities, including property owners and renters."
The physical changes in the Stiles Brook plans, and the new financial incentives attached to it, are unlikely to quiet the debate over the project's impacts. Seawright argues that the project still will harm the ridgeline ecosystem and increase the potential for devastating flooding — especially in Grafton.
Windham resident Nancy Dyke also is a skeptic. "There are still too many turbines in too close a proximity (to homes)," Dyke said after looking over Iberdrola's plans at the Oct. 4 meeting.
Additionally, Dyke is concerned about health impacts, particularly from low frequency infrasound emitted by large turbines. Iberdrola has dismissed such concerns, but some contend infrasound can cause medical problems.
Dyke said she generally favors wind power. "But I think the siting of these projects is absolutely critical," she said. "And we don't want to be collateral damage."
Mike Faher reports for the Reformer, VTDigger, and The Commons. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.