WINDHAM -- The state Department of Public Service is urging rejection of a proposal to build wind-testing towers here, saying such construction would be "wholly contrary" to the Town of Windham's regulations.
The department's strongly worded letter does not end the process: It still will fall to the state's Public Service Board -- a separate entity -- to rule for or against Atlantic Wind LLC's proposal.
But it could deal a big blow to the project. And the state's letter also was a victory of sorts for Windham officials who have fought Atlantic Wind for months.
"We presume the (Public Service Board) will be very thoughtful of the issues raised with this application, and we are hopeful they will decide in our favor," said Mary Boyer, Windham Selectboard chairwoman.
"For today, we are proud of Windham and proud to live in Vermont, where a tiny little town can be heard at the highest levels of state government."
Atlantic Wind is a subsidiary of Iberdrola Renewables, a giant in the wind-power industry. The company has requested a certificate of public good from the state to erect three meteorological testing (MET) towers -- two in Windham and one in Grafton.
Those towers, depending on the data they produce, could be the precursor to Windham County's first commercial wind turbine site.
Grafton officials have not taken a position the matter. But Windham officials have argued that their town plan, completed four years ago, prohibits commercial wind development.
Atlantic Wind, in a letter to the Public Service Board last month, said town plans are "advisory rather than controlling" and cannot be the sole basis for the board's decision.
The Department of Public Service, though, has reached a different conclusion.
"The Windham town plan contains two provisions that, when read together, clearly prohibit development of commercial wind facilities within the town," the department's Oct. 9 letter says.
Officials add that Windham's plan "bans all commercial development inside the town Forest Resource Districts, except for clearly listed allowable activities. The construction of MET towers is not a listed and allowable activity."
As a result, the Public Service Board "should defer to the clear mandate of the town plan and not grant a CPG for the temporary siting of any MET towers in Windham," a department attorney wrote.
Jenny Briot, a senior business developer with Iberdrola, said the company would be filing a response with the state shortly.
"We respectfully disagree and believe that their position is inconsistent with the board's prior precedent regarding temporary MET towers," Briot said.
The department's letter says Atlantic Wind, in arguing that town plans are not controlling, cited examples involving power projects that were fulfilling a statewide energy need.
That's not the case in Windham, officials say.
"Here, the town plan is due the utmost consideration because the proposed MET towers do not address an identified urgent statewide concern," the department's letter says.
And while Atlantic Wind has pointed out that Windham's plan does not specifically ban testing towers, the state Department of Public Service said Windham's intent was clear regardless.
"A ban on MET tower construction is consistent with the overall intent to prohibit commercial wind development in the town," the letter says.
Atlantic Wind representatives repeatedly have pointed out that they're not proposing a turbine site at this time. And Elizabeth Miller, Department of Public Service commissioner, said state officials "recognized the complexity presented in a situation where a developer wants to explore a potential project."
"However, the project proposed here is expressly intended to lead to a commercial development clearly prohibited by the town plan," Miller told the Reformer.
While the Public Service Board has approved meteorological towers in the past, town plans in those areas were not as clear as Windham's, Miller said.
"This is a town that had gone through the process in 2007 and 2008 in adopting a plan at a time when commercial wind development was a matter of significant discussion," Miller said. "They did not take that portion of the plan lightly."
Boyer said the department's opinion "speaks to the strength of our town plan and its clarity."
The opinion also could carry some significance beyond the Atlantic Wind application, said Chris Campany, Windham Regional Commission executive director.
"It seems to be a reaffirmation of the value of the town planning process," Campany said.
Campany had not taken a position for or against Atlantic Wind. But he had written an August letter requesting that the Public Service Board "defer to the guidance offered by the municipal plans approved by our member towns" in such matters.
Mike Faher can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.
Reformer staff writer Bob Audette also contributed to this report. He can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 160.