WINDHAM -- Windham County's first wind-turbine site could protect a large tract of working forest while also providing financial benefits to the towns of Windham and Grafton, advocates said at a public meeting this week.
But representatives of Meadowsend Timberlands Limited, which owns that forest, and Iberdrola Renewables, which might develop the project, also admitted that they do not yet know whether there is enough wind at the site to support those windmills.
Even after a year of gathering weather data via three meteorological-testing towers, no decisions have been made.
"We think the wind is there. MTL thinks the wind is there. We're in the process of proving whether it is or isn't," said Donald Hammond, an Iberdrola engineer.
While some residents had questions about how close to homes the turbines might be, Iberdrola representatives said they simply don't know the answer yet.
"We can't specify a number or location until we know more about the wind," Hammond said.
The potential for a turbine project has been debated here since 2012, when New Hampshire-based Meadowsend and Iberdrola announced plans to erect two testing towers in Windham and another in Grafton.
The proposal has attracted supporters and detractors in both towns. The pushback has included governmental opposition in Windham, where the town plan bans industrial wind projects.
The state Department of Public Service sided with Windham officials.
Those towers went up in April 2013. But there has been continuing friction between Windham and Meadowsend: While town officials say there has been strong, public opposition to any wind project, timber company representatives believe they have not been given a fair hearing.
That led to Tuesday night's meeting at Windham Congregational Church. It was organized by Michael Simonds, a Windham lister and zoning officer who said he was "concerned about the tone of the discussion here about wind energy."
Simonds said the town's earlier ban on wind turbines was enacted "without a fact-based, townwide discussion."
"I hope this meeting will be the start of a respectful discussion in town," he said.
Simonds addressed a crowd of more than 60 who filled rows of metal folding chairs from the front of the room, where presenters sat at tables around a projection screen, to the back of the room, where deserts and maps of the Stiles Brook forest sat on tables along with a box for submitting questions and comments.
Meadowsend started the evening by underlining the size and importance of Stiles Brook, which consists of about 5,000 acres.
"Our land in Windham and in Grafton is the largest piece of property that we own. We have a long-term interest in protecting and conserving privately owned, working forest lands," said Jamey French, a managing family partner in Meadowsend.
"We are completely committed to a conversation easement being placed on this land," French told the crowd. "My dad purchased the property 20 years ago because he thought it was just the type of property that could be managed over the long-term to -- as he always talked about -- grow trees for your grandchildren."
But Meadowsend administrators said the effects of climate change and economic pressures have forced them to look at other uses for the land.
"It's very, very challenging to hold working forests for a long-term investment without looking to alternate income sources," French said.
That's why Meadowsend asked Iberdrola, a key player in the worldwide wind industry, to look at the possibility of placing turbines at Stiles Brook. Meadowsend is no stranger to such projects, as its property in the Northeast Kingdom already hosts windmills.
"We went to them. We had a success with the property up in Sheffield," French said. "We own that land that the Sheffield Wind project is on. It worked well. We're proud of it."
He added that "we are very much in charge of this process. The final decisions around it will be made by us."
But Iberdrola representatives, while mentioning the potential for 15 to 30 turbines at the site, emphasized that no decisions are imminent. A typical assessment of wind resources can take one to three years, said Jenny Briot, a senior business developer with Iberdrola.
"There is a lengthy period of time in which we need to be able to study an area for a potential project," Briot said. "We have found that we do need to study additional data here from the towers."
Hammond said analysis has begun on the "huge amounts of data" generated by MET towers. He added, though, that "you need more than one year to know that you have a repeatable and predictable amount of energy."
In spite of average wind speeds that "look promising," Hammond outlined some areas of concern. That includes data from April that "really didn't look like what we collected in other months."
"We need to understand that," he said.
Also, there has been "turbulence" in the wind stream.
"The terrain is complex ... and turbulence and wind turbines don't necessarily go well together," Hammond said.
Meeting organizers posted a timeline for the Stiles Brook project with benchmarks including:
-- 2015: MET data collection continues; assessment of the project's potential and preliminary site-layout evaluation; and preliminary environmental field assessment work.
-- 2016: Based on results of MET data, environmental assessment and "community project conversations," the process "may proceed to complete project layout design" along with permitting applications.
-- 2019: If permits are obtained, Iberdrola would "commence and complete project construction."
The permitting process was addressed at Tuesday night's meeting by Aaron Kisicki, an attorney with the state Public Service Department. Kisicki outlined an in-depth review of any application, saying the Public Service Board "is meticulous in reviewing a petition of this magnitude."
"Input from the affected communities, particularly with respect to (electric) generation facilities, is very critical to the board in making a determination," Kisicki said.
Other presenters at Tuesday's meeting included Pamela Tetreault, who serves as treasurer in the town of Lowell, where 21 turbines began turning in November 2012.
After 75 percent of voters approved proceeding with the wind project, the town entered into a lucrative, 25-year agreement with Green Mountain Power, Tetreault said.
"We do receive a lump-sum amount of $535,000 (annually). That amount does go up by $32,500 every five years," she said.
The lump-sum payment, Tetreault added, exceeds the $460,000 in municipal taxes needed for the town budget. That means that, "last year, the town of Lowell had a 0 percent tax rate for municipal tax," Tetreault said.
She added that there has been no evidence that the turbines -- which are situated near her home -- have impacted property values. When it comes to Stiles Brook, Tetreault advised the Windham crowd, "do not be closed-minded. Be open. Go and see and hear for yourself."
There will be opportunities this week to do that. Meadowsend is organizing tours of the Stiles Brook property at 6 p.m. Thursday and 2 p.m. Friday. There also are tours of Iberdrola's Lempster Wind facility in New Hampshire planned for Saturday, May 31.
Anyone interested in more details is asked to call 802-843-4047 or e-mail MTLStilesBrook@vermontel.net.
Among those in attendance Tuesday night was Mary Boyer, Windham's Selectboard chairwoman and an opponent of commercial wind power.
"I thought it was very informative," Boyer said after the session. "I thought they did a very nice job of promoting themselves."
Boyer said the draft of Windham's newest town plan -- which has not yet received Selectboard approval -- "clarifies" the town's ban on wind turbines.
She also left no doubt that there is opposition to the Stiles Brook proposal.
"This is not personal. This is an industrial process," Boyer said. "This is a project that is highly questionable for us."
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.