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Northeast Kingdom Residents Weigh In On Seneca Mountain Wind Project

Ballots are being cast by mail in a remote corner of the Northeast Kingdom  for—or against—a wind power project.  But it’s not an official election, it’s a survey paid for by a wind power developer who is gauging local support for a controversial project in the tiny town of Ferdinand.

Opponents say the turbines would ruin the scenic landscape, and they have been conducting their own opinion poll by telephone.

Seneca Wind’s proposal to erect 20 turbines on Seneca Mountain has spurred some strong opposition from communities within sight of a proposed wind project. Some, including Brighton, have already changed their zoning plans to ban tall towers. In his office in Island Pond, Brighton’s Administrative Assistant, Joel Cope, says an industrial wind development  would not generate enough jobs to offset the blow to tourism, which he says is the area’s economic mainstay. He points to a scenic photograph on his wall.

“That’s from Bluff Mountain, right up there, looking across the Lake at the Seneca Mountain Range. An array would be right there, it’s our main view shed,” Cope said.

Pam Arborio is a founder  of the opposition group, Save Our Senecas.  Arborio notes that the survey financed by Seneca Wind did not go to all registered voters in the greater region impacted by the turbines. It was sent to about 400 properties - one ballot per household - only in the surrounding Unified Towns and Gores, known as the UTG. Many of those are camps or second homes.  So far, about 280 property tax payers have responded, and the ballots will be opened and tallied on Jan. 13.

Meanwhile, Arborio says her group has telephoned 433 property owners within sight of the towers, and she says most have voiced concerns about their impacts on the environment, including new roads, and noise.

“And not a single one that I spoke to were concerned about the money, they were concerned about the destruction of the mountains,” Arborio said.

The “money” Arborio refers to amounts to a tax abatement of about $900 annually per property in the Unified Territories and Gores if the project is built.  She says that comes close to a bribe. But John Soininen, Seneca Winds’ project manager, says it’s just part of the developer’s proposed $600,000 yearly payment to the UTG, if the towers are built. He notes that it’s not unusual for communities to reap financial benefits from wind power generators.  Soininen  says this remote site is ideal because it does not affect that many people, and it moves the state toward an ambitious goal.

“We see a very clear mandate from the state of Vermont to increase the amount of in-state generation of electricity from a renewable resource. The comprehensive energy plan of 2011 calls for 90 percent renewables by 2050,” he said.

Opponents complain, however, that a disproportionate burden of that goal is being shouldered by the Northeast Kingdom. 

Still, the project does have local supporters and some gather at a local garage. Joe Niper lives in Island Pond and defends the rights of the property owner who is leasing some of his 9,000 acres to Seneca Wind.

“I personally think he should do with his property what he wants,” Niper said.

Soininen, of Seneca Wind, hopes the ballots from the UTG will show similar support. But if they don’t, that doesn’t mean that the company will immediately pack up and go home. Soininen  stands by his promise not to put turbines where they are not wanted.

But he says a “no” vote, especially if it’s close, may  just spur the developer to make adjustments, and a stronger case for wind power on Seneca Mountain.