WINDHAM -- Given the possibility of a controversial wind-power development here, the topic of the first two questions at Wednesday night's Senate-candidate forum was no surprise.
First, voters wanted to know what the candidates thought about building turbines on Windham's ridgelines. The next question was whether any one town should have the right to reject "large-scale commercial energy generation" -- a clear nod to the Windham town plan's ban on industrial-sized windmills.
The latter issue split the four Democrats: Both Joan Bowman and Roger Allbee support a town's veto right, while Becca Balint and incumbent Sen. Jeanette White do not.
"I think it is a dangerous precedent to set. And I'm sorry -- I think that's an unpopular view here," Balint said. "But I have to speak my conscience. I think it is a precedent that will make it very difficult to move forward on meeting our energy goals in Vermont."
The exchange came during a two-hour forum at Windham Meeting House. The session was organized by Windham Community Organization, which invited all four Democrats vying for the party's two nominations for Windham County Senate in the Aug. 26 primary:
-- White, of Putney, is a six-term Senator who chairs the Government Operations Committee.
-- Bowman, also of Putney, works as a health-care navigator at Brattleboro Memorial Hospital.
-- Balint, of Brattleboro, is a longtime educator who now works part-time as a coach and consultant.
-- Allbee, of Townshend, is chief executive officer at Grace Cottage Hospital and former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, Food and Markets.
They are running in the only contested primary race for Senate. Two Liberty Union candidates -- Aaron Diamondstone and Jerry Levy -- also are on the primary ballot, while no Republicans entered the race.
Wednesday's forum featured just three of the Democrats, as White had a family trip planned and participated via a written statement that was read aloud to attendees.
But the senator, having remarked at an earlier debate that some of the area's ridgelines may have to be sacrificed for wind turbines, knew that the issue would come up and addressed it in her statement.
"I do believe that local communities should be party to the siting of any installations, but I have not been convinced that a single town should have veto power," she wrote. "However, great deference should be given to regional plans."
Balint, while reiterating her concerns about setting a poor precedent by allowing single-town vetoes, said towns should have input in energy-project permitting. She also assured voters that she is willing to talk the matter over.
"What I want you to know about me is, I don't go into any discussion, really, truly, with my mind made up," Balint said.
At the first Senate debate last month in Townshend, Allbee was the only candidate to say he supported giving Windham and/or Grafton the power to reject the turbine project that is being considered for the Stiles Brook Forest tract that lies in both towns.
On Wednesday night, Allbee made his views plain once again.
"Would I favor wind development on ridge tops in Windham? Absolutely not," he said. "Our ridgelines have very important purposes -- for environmental matters, for health matters, for water-quality matters. They've always been considered to be an important part of our infrastructure in the state."
He complained that the Vermont Public Service Board does not give towns enough of a voice in the Act 248 permitting process for energy projects.
"Towns need to be part of the 248 process. Windham's done a very extensive study of wind -- very extensive. They've looked at all aspects. And when a town has done that, they should have the ability to be party to the Act 248 process," Allbee said.
"These companies that come in, whether they're from Spain or other places, have deep pockets -- very deep pockets," Allbee said. "And towns do not have the ability, by themselves ... to counter what is done or what's planned."
At Wednesday night's forum, Bowman came down in the same camp as Allbee.
"I'm not afraid to allow towns to decide that they don't want something to be within their borders," she said. "It's about local control for me. It's about respecting the community. So I'm not afraid that it would set a precedent."
While departing Windham County state Sen. Peter Galbraith had supported a moratorium on building commercial wind turbines, none of the four Democratic candidates have called for such a ban. However, they expressed differing views on the effectiveness and feasibility of windpower.
"I have had this conversation with many of you. Some agree with me, some do not," White wrote. "I believe our energy plan must leave all forms of production on the table including wind, solar, methane from landfills and (agricultural) waste."
Balint expressed concerns about the impact of climate change, and she said criticism of governmental incentives for turbine development misses an important fact.
"A lot of times when we talk about wind, we talk about, 'Wind wouldn't exist without government giveaways and tax credits,'" Balint said. "Now, the fossil-fuel industry receives $21.6 billion in subsidies, and that doesn't include health costs or environmental costs associated with that. So it's really important that we're talking about apples to apples."
She also said there is "conflicting information" about the impact of wind turbines on the environment.
"I talked to several people at the (state) Agency of Natural Resources and people who work for the Vermont Conservation Voters, and they feel like there is an argument that can be made that responsible siting of wind power can actually do quite a bit to preserve the natural area," Balint said.
Allbee touted the benefits of other forms of renewable energy.
"We were very aggressive in working on energy development when I was (Agriculture) secretary. We looked at biofuels, we looked at methane, we looked at biosolids," he said.
Allbee said he also encourages more development of solar arrays, as long as they do not occupy prime agricultural land. But he believes wind turbines do little to alleviate climate change or to counteract carbon emissions.
"If we're interested in global warming and the impact, we should be looking at weatherization," he said. "That's where the biggest bang for the buck is. It's not in building wind."
Bowman also called for more energy conservation. Additionally, she said she is interested in "building healthy communities" through a variety of energy sources that fit with a town's plans.
"I don't think about industrial wind. I think about wind fitting in your renewable energy portfolio that allows you as a town to be self-dependent," she said.
"I want to look at, what kinds of wind can we put in Windham?" Bowman added. "What kinds of solar arrays could be put (in Windham)? How are we going to marry these? It's about local survival and self-dependence. It's not about industrial wind coming in."
The candidates also fielded questions on topics such as economic development, health-care reform, education and the Democratic Party. A final public forum featuring the Democratic Senate candidates is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Aug. 21, at Brattleboro American Legion, 32 Linden St.
Mike Faher can be reached at email@example.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.