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Developer Offers Payments To Voters As Windham And Grafton Decide On Wind Project

Howard Weiss-Tisman
Early voting on a proposed wind project has started in Windham. Iberdrola Renewables says it will pay an annual payment to each registered voter in Windham and Grafton if the project is built.

As voters in Grafton and Windham prepare to vote on an industrial wind project, developers have offered annual payments to registered voters if the project moves ahead.

There isn't a whole lot the two sides can agree on when it comes to the Stiles Brook Wind Project in Windham and Grafton.

Opponents are worried that the development will impact wildlife and lead to storm water runoff. But developers say the project will have to go through a rigorous environmental permitting process that will ensure the area is protected.

Critics say the turbines will affect the health of nearby residents, while the company points to its own noise studies, which they say show a minimal impact to nearby homes.

Roy Coburn lives in Windham, and he's been watching the debate play out in the tiny town of about 400 people.

"Well, I been on the fence about the windmills, and I hadn't really decided whether good or bad," Coburn says out in front of his house. "I know they've been putting out a lot of information, some of it sounds bad and some good. So, I wish I knew the truth, Is it really all this bad stuff they've been telling, or not? I don't know."

Iberdrola Renewables is the Spanish energy company that wants to build the wind project, which would be Vermont's largest, just about a mile from Coburn's house.

Coburn says he heard about the company's latest offer to make annual payments of about $1,100 to every voter in Windham if the project is built.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Roy Coburn of Windham and says a $1,100 payment from a wind developer might help him decide which way to vote on the proposed project.

"That really sways me," he says. "And it might help me decide to vote in favor of it, because the tax is too high in this town. Why are our taxes so high here? I don't consider it a bribe, actually."

But that's exactly what some of the people who have been fighting the development call the payment to voters who are preparing to cast their ballots on the controversial project.

Jo-Jo Chlebogiannis, Windham's town clerk, she says that after Iberdrola made the offer, she checked with the state to see if it was legal.

And even though the Attorney General's office said the offer doesn't break state law, Chlebogiannis says it's hard not to see the annual payments as influencing the election.

"[The payment] might help me decide to vote in favor of it, because the tax is too high in this town." - Roy Coburn, Windham resident

"In my opinion, it has a direct impact on this process," Chlebogiannis says. "I think it can have the potential to sway voters. And I just hope on voting day that people vote for what they feel is the right thing to do, no matter how they vote ... Yes, would say that was a bribe, but who am I? I'm not the secretary of the state."

Steve Amsden lives just up the road from the town offices, and he supports the project.

"I'm for it. I'm in favor of it," he says. "I think it's a good clean alternative to Vermont Yankee and some of the other power projects, coal, and all that. My mind was made up, back quite some time ago, back before this last proposal ever came about."

Amsden says the annual payments came out of discussions between the developers and a group of Windham residents who stepped in to talk with the company after town officials refused to.

"This was a negotiated thing," Amsden says. "It wasn't a thing where Iberdrola just come out and said, 'This is what we're going to do.' You know, I don't think it was a bribe. No."

At public meetings earlier this month, Iberdrola unveiled the new financial incentives for each town.

The total package for Windham, which would have 16 of the proposed 24 turbines, amounts to about $1 million a year, including tax payments, a community fund and the individual annual payments to each voter.

Howard Weiss-Tisman
A road sign along Route 121 on the Grafton-Windham town line.

In Grafton, which would have eight turbines, the company promises $500,000 dollars in taxes and payments, including at least $428 every year to each registered voter.

"The way we've evaluated it is an effort to put money in everybody's pocket," says Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman.

Under the original deal, the company would have made a lump payment to the town. Copleman says after meeting with residents of both towns, the company decided to provide more direct economic benefits.

"You know, a question that we have heard is, 'I think it's great for the roads. It's great for the fire department. It's great for the community tax base.' But how does it necessarily benefit the vast majority of folks in town?" Copleman says. "And so this is an effort to do that. But it's also a reflection of what people expressed to us in terms of concerns they have in terms of the community."

Debbie Wright lives in Grafton, and she's been opposed to the wind project  from the very start. She says $428 a year isn't going to change her mind.

"Who cares about the money if they're clearing our Green Mountains?" - Debbie Wright, Grafton resident

"Who cares about the money if they're clearing our Green Mountains?" she says. "They're not thinking. They're thinking of the almighty dollar, but the almighty dollar is destroying the land. So you're really going to enjoy that dollar? I don't get it."

Iberdrola doesn't need a positive vote to move ahead with the project.

It's up to the Public Service Board to issue a certificate of public good, but the company says it will honor the votes in each town before applying for the state permits.

And if the project is rejected, the company says it will walk away.

There are 314 registered voters in Windham, and another 500 or so in Grafton.

So after four years of meetings, and the sharp divisions that have formed in each town, the fate of the project will come down to the couple of hundred voters who show up on Election Day.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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