Long stretches of wooden fence went up on private land along both sides of Kidder Hill Road last month in Irasburg. The so-called Good Fences Project has nothing to do with charity — or neighborliness. Locals are hoping to literally block the placement of two 500-foot-tall wind turbines on the property of AllEarth Renewables CEO David Blittersdorf.
Irasburg residents have watched over the years as trucks carrying wind turbines nearly as long as their town commons passed through en route to nearby hillsides. There's no way, they say, that a truck laden with an industrial turbine could squeeze through the fences and onto the only road that leads to the site.
"People in Irasburg are solidly united that they don't want these turbines, but they're not much for marching with banners or doing rallies," explained Judith Jackson, who counts herself among the opponents.
In recent years, residents in Swanton, Craftsbury, Milton, Lowell, Sheffield, Barton, Poultney, Dummerston, Pownal, New Haven, Bennington and Rutland have waged bruising battles against wind towers.
Yet the conflict in Irasburg, a hardscrabble town of 1,100 nestled between ridgelines 10 miles south of Newport, has gotten personal — not to mention vitriolic and bizarre.
Residents have publicly called Blittersdorf a traitor, a liar and a "wolf in sheep's clothing." In October, they turned out en masse and voted 274-9 against his plan. Borrowing a page from The Godfather, somebody left a severed deer head on his land.
One of the state's leading alternative-energy figures, Blittersdorf gives as good as he's gotten. He dismissed the opposition as a "mob" fueled by myths and misinformation. Despite the residents' vote, Blittersdorf made it clear he expects to force Irasburg to "do its part" to combat global warming.
Blittersdorf, a Pittsford native and University of Vermont graduate, founded Renewable NRG Systems, a Hinesburg company that became an international leader in wind-measurement technology. "We grew our business in Vermont, and we didn't do it without pushing ahead in tough times," said Blittersdorf, who built Georgia Mountain Community Wind despite local opposition.
He left NRG, which is now run by his ex-wife, Jan Blomstrann, and founded AllEarth Renewables in 2004, which, judging from the company website, appears to be rebranding itself as AllEarth Solar.
In Irasburg, though, it's all about wind. Fueling the debate, observers say, is a simmering resentment that extends to the rest of the Northeast Kingdom. Irasburg residents said their town and neighboring ones are being targeted for wind projects because they're too poor to defend themselves. Several people interviewed by Seven Days invoked Mt. Mansfield and Camel's Hump — wind projects would never be proposed for those beloved landmarks, located in more affluent areas, they said.
"There's a feeling we're getting stuck with the windmills," said novelist and longtime Irasburg resident Howard Frank Mosher. "What bothers people about the windmills more than anything else is being told by outside people that we have to have them."
In 2010, Blittersdorf bought 60 acres on Kidder Hill, just north of Irasburg village. He had always wanted to live in a hillside cabin, he said. Blittersdorf quickly installed two small wind turbines to generate power for the place. He was surprised by the high wind-speed readings and decided to install larger, industrial-size turbines. The two turbines would have a capacity of five megawatts and could generate enough electricity to power about 2,000 homes.
In August, Blittersdorf invited a couple dozen neighbors to his cabin to tell them his plans. He said he knew some people wouldn't be thrilled, but that the meeting was not confrontational. Yet word of the turbines led to ferocious resistance.
Within days, opponents had created the Irasburg Ridgeline Alliance. They launched a website, recruited volunteers and got 400 of Irasburg's 685 registered voters to sign a petition demanding that the selectboard use "all possible means" to stymie Blittersdorf. Signs decrying the project appeared around town.
Their grievances echo similar disputes. They say the project would destroy the character of the area and the benefits would go primarily to others on the electric grid. They worry the turbines will create noise, harm wildlife and lower their property values. And they are dubious about its environmental benefits.
Making matters worse, opponents charge that Blittersdorf is an arrogant interloper.
"He doesn't help. He needs a PR specialist," said Irasburg resident Ron Holland. "He's a true believer in something that is oversimplified, and he's hoping to make money off it."
Blittersdorf says Irasburg is simply embracing a not-in-my-backyard stance. Renewable energy, he says, must be part of the solution for global warming. That means people are going to have to make room for solar panels and wind turbines. "We have to tackle it as a society, not as individual communities or people," he said. "How are we all going to move away from gas and carbon? We have to do something."
Blittersdorf said the project would generate $45,000 in annual payments for the town, and that 10 percent of the power — the maximum allowed under Vermont's current net-metering laws — would go to local residents, reducing their electric bills. The rest would be sold to local utilities.
Irasburgers aren't buying it.
In an article headlined "Hostile Crowd Obliterates Blittersdorf Wind Plan," the Caledonian-Record recounted a bitter August selectboard meeting. Then-chair Robin Kay initially refused to let Blittersdorf speak, saying he should have asked in advance to be on the agenda. Meanwhile, several of Blittersdorf's critics, whose names were not on the agenda either, were given an audience.
"Blittersdorf silently listened as he was accused of being in bed with Governor Peter Shumlin, political cronyism and moral turpitude in general, abusing neighbors, ... accepting corporate welfare, having no conscience, lying and selling his soul," the Record reported.
Toward the end of the meeting, the selectboard relented and agreed to hear from Blittersdorf. But first, the board warned audience members they should leave if they didn't want to hear him. Many took the advice and headed for the door.
"I don't think they want to hear it," Kay told Blittersdorf, who quickly wrapped up his remarks.
Much to the consternation of those opponents, the power to approve wind farms lies not with local communities, but with the Public Service Board, a statewide regulatory body. Still, local sentiment can sway the PSB, and, at the urging of opponents, the selectboard scheduled an advisory vote on October 1.
Blittersdorf said that even though town officials knew for weeks that they were going to vote, Kay called him less than 48 hours before the meeting to invite him to give a 20-minute presentation. He was in Boston and decided he didn't have enough time to put it together. He said he was "sandbagged."
An overflow crowd turned out to Irasburg Town Hall to vote 274 to 9 against the turbines.
Meanwhile, Blittersdorf accused the selectboard of meeting in secret to discuss his project. While records are not comprehensive, he appears to have a point. On October 19, the selectboard, which is legally required to convene only in public and with advance notice, acknowledged in a statement attached to minutes from the meeting that it had committed an "error" by conferring with project opponents behind closed doors.
Blittersdorf said he has retained an attorney but has no desire to pursue legal action against the town. He also noted that Irasburg has no zoning or planning regulations, allowing property owners great freedom.
"All we want is for them to run their meetings appropriately," he said. "We follow all the rules. What we want — I shouldn't use the term 'grown-up conversation' — but we want to have a dialogue about what we're proposing."
Kay declined to comment. Some opponents said that Blittersdorf has probably been treated too harshly in the meetings. "People were passionate, and they weren't in the mood to listen," Jackson said. "I think that's a fair point."
On October 27, Blittersdorf, at home in Charlotte, received a grainy nighttime image on his cellphone from a game camera on his Irasburg property. An intruder had left something by his front gate. Blittersdorf called police, who found a severed deer head.
Blittersdorf and most residents believe it was a message inspired by the animosity. Police don't have any leads, and Blittersdorf is offering a $1,000 reward. He said he has also received threatening phone messages, which he's reported to police.
"We've seen in history, you can do things in a mob situation that are really bad, and people get caught up, and they come to regret it," he said.
For now, the battle has moved to the PSB. Blittersdorf has not yet filed an application for the project, but its opponents have suggested to the PSB that a "meteorological tower" built on his Irasburg property should have required a permit.*
Blittersdorf is fighting that allegation and has made it clear that the bid for the large-scale turbines will continue. He hopes to undertake 10 similar projects in Vermont in the next decade.
Meanwhile, Irasburg residents have taken a step that, until a few months ago, seemed unthinkable in the town that has historically eschewed municipal regulations. In October, the selectboard impaneled a planning commission to map out a town plan governing land use. Commissioners hope to complete a proposal by Town Meeting Day.
The subjects of the first two chapters of the plan include ridgelines and renewable energy.
Correction, December 9, 2015: A previous version of this story misstated the nature of the complaint made to the PSB over construction on Blittersdorf's property. It was for the meteorological tower.