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Vote Against Wind Project Raises Questions About Future Development

Seneca Wind
A rendering of a wind project as proposed by Seneca Wind shows impact on scenery.

A vote against a wind energy project proposed for Seneca Mountain, near Island Pond, is raising questions about the developer’s next steps. Residents opposed to the project say they are sending a unified message that turbines are not welcome on pristine mountain tops in the Northeast Kingdom.

But the company hasn’t pulled the plug. At least, not yet.

This wasn’t an official election in the Unified Towns and Gores of Essex County. It was an opinion poll conducted by mail and paid for the Seneca Wind. When the replies were tallied before a UTG meeting in Ferdinand Monday night, opponents to the 20-turbine project claimed victory, saying the outcome — 170 against, 107 for — wasn’t even close.

Valerie Desmarais is a co-founder of one of three citizens’ groups opposing the project.

“We’ve done a lot of work and a lot of outreach and done as much education as we can to help people understand the impacts of a set-up like this on the mountain,” she said after the vote.

And those impacts, she says, are not just environmental, but economic in a remote area that relies heavily on income from tourists looking for unspoiled recreational settings. So she and others at the UTG meeting nodded when the Seneca Wind project manager, John Soininen, said that his company would have to re-think its plan.

“Yes, we committed to abiding by a local vote,” he said.

But before the meeting Soininen said, paraphrasing a written statement, that Seneca Wind may not be dead, yet.

“We would like to extend our thanks to all our supporters for their efforts and for taking the time to cast their ballots. At this point Seneca Mountain Wind will need to evaluate the results and consider our options moving forward,” Soininen said.

The landowner, meanwhile, has closed his vast acreage to public snowmobile traffic, apparently out of frustration at the vote. So there’s a lot of ambiguity surrounding the UTG survey — not only about what it will mean for future development on Seneca Mountain, but also elsewhere in the Northeast Kingdom. Wind opponents say it follows a trend set in a series of  local votes, including Brighton, Newark, Eden, and Sutton, against mountaintop turbines in this scenic region. But some Kingdom communities have voted for wind projects. And Gabrielle Stebbins, Director of the trade group Renewable Energy Vermont, says the UTG survey should not be seen as an industry defeat, because over 100 people voted yes.

“I think in the long run the multiple benefits of wind energy will outweigh the concerns, and many of those concerns are not based in science, so we’re going to continue to work towards that day when we’re focusing on what wind projects bring in terms of clean energy at very low cost,” Stebbins said.

But clearly there are strong disagreements about what those costs are, and not everyone measures them in monetary terms. Stebbins says local communities should put their trust in the Public Service Board to assess both environmental and economic impacts of wind projects. Opponents say the PSB criteria are too narrow.

So the debate is likely to continue, not only about individual projects, but about the way the state regulates them.

Charlotte Albright lives in Lyndonville and currently works in the Office of Communication at Dartmouth College. She was a VPR reporter from 2012 - 2015, covering the Upper Valley and the Northeast Kingdom. Prior to that she freelanced for VPR for several years.
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