By TOM BENTON Messenger Staff Writer
SWANTON — A handful of concerned residents grew into a coalition drawing together the towns of Swanton, Fairfield and St. Albans to fight Swanton Wind all the way to Montpelier.
The developers behind the project, Swanton residents Travis and Ashley Belisle, and their attorney, Anthony Iarrapino, insisted the project would benefit both the area around its proposed construction site and the state’s renewable energy goals. They attributed a symbolic vote regarding the project in Swanton — 160 for the project, 730 against — to misinformation about the project.
To that end, the Belisles and their representatives, including Martha Staskus of Vermont Environmental Research Associates and Dori Barton of Arrowwood Environmental, presented the results of various scientific studies concerning the project’s proposed 30-acre site, which would house up to seven turbines as tall as 499 feet. Barton’s study team determined the project would not threaten any indigenous wildlife or wetlands. In fact, she said the Belisles had commissioned a redesign of the project to avoid all wetlands, and reached an agreement with the state Agency of Natural Resources to maintain and improve deer habitat around the project site.
When those statements did not appease the project’s opponents, the Belisles even went so far as to include a buy-out option for residents living within 3,000 feet of a turbine, a move Staskus said was “unprecedented.” Approximately 20 residents qualified for the buy-out. Christine Lang, one of the project’s original opponents, said the buy-out was “a huge step,” while her husband, Dustin, accused the Belisles of “leaving Fairfield out to dry.”
The Belisles, meanwhile, fired back at opponents’ claim that the developers ignored residents’ concerns and tried to “fast-track” the project. Travis pointed out that the project’s developers submitted their 45-day application notice to the Public Service Board (PSB), which regulates energy projects’ construction, nearly a year before finally submitting the project’s application. He said that time had been spent conducting additional studies in answer to residents’ concerns, and to clarify areas in which there seemed to be confusion. “There was fasttracking only by opponents,” he said.
Those opponents did not give up. They attended every meeting of Swanton’s planning commission while the commission reviewed new language for its municipal energy plan — language supported (and designed by) Swanton Wind opponents, and criticized for being based on “fear rather than facts” by Iarrapino. The planning commission ultimately approved the language after several months of heated meetings, which planning commission chair Jim Hubbard called the hardest task in his 20 years as a commissioner.
Swanton’s town selectboard committed $10,000 in October toward “vigorously opposing” Swanton Wind during the PSB’s review. Fairfield’s own selectboard voted to join the opposition a few weeks later, and St. Albans Town a few weeks after that.
The PSB has scheduled a nine-month review process beginning in January, meaning the fate of Swanton Wind remains unknown until at least next September.