At a boisterous rally on Sunday in Derby Line, residents expressed concerns about noise, aesthetics, possible damage to local wildlife and property values in opposition to a two-turbine wind development.
But this was not your typical antiwind protest. Because the proposed turbines are a stone’s throw from the U.S.-Canadian border, the familiar arguments about wind development were elevated from local controversy to international dispute.
The towns of Derby Line, Vt., and Stanstead, Québec, have a long-standing geographic and cultural connection. Despite tighter post-9/11 border control, the community is still “pretty much one great big town with an international border running through it,” says Derby selectboard chair Brian Smith.
“There are people that wake up in Québec and eat breakfast in Vermont,” Derby Center resident Glenda Nye says of residents whose homes are aligned with the two sides of the border.
Last Sunday afternoon, more than 100 U.S. and Canadian residents gathered in a building that straddles it — the Haskell Free Library and Opera House — carrying signs, petitions and posters to decry the proposed wind development. One sign, in French, read simply: “Non, non, non.”
The wind development is being proposed by Burlington-based Encore Redevelopment, which wants to site the two turbines on private property owned by two dairy farmers. The project is currently under consideration by the Public Service Board, but now Canadian neighbors want a say in the proceedings.
Opposition that has been brewing quietly for months came to a head last week. That’s when Stanstead mayor Philippe Dutil threatened to turn off the water supply — which comes from Canada — to the Vermont village of Beebe Plain unless the Derby selectboard agreed to voice its opposition to the wind project.
Dutil now says that the threat was more a ploy for attention — and it worked. In an emergency meeting last week, the Derby selectboard voted to discontinue negotiations with Encore Redevelopment. It wasn’t a vote specifically opposing or supporting the project, clarifies Smith, who personally supports the turbines.
The town of Stanstead took a firmer stand in April, when the town council, along with Dutil, voted unanimously to oppose the project.
The Derby Line project is what Encore Redevelopment is calling a “community scale” project: The two turbines, each of which is more than 400 feet tall, would together power about 2300 homes. Encore’s website says the project is being developed in part because of Vermont’s Sustainably Priced Energy Enterprise Development, or SPEED, program. The program is designed to promote the growth of qualifying projects in the state by requiring utilities to pay a premium for the energy generated by these developments. The deal makes projects such as the Derby Line turbines more attractive to investors.
Encore has already built several renewable-energy projects in Vermont, primarily solar arrays, but also a 121-foot windmill in Vergennes. But its record doesn’t seem to have reassured wind opponents in Derby and Stanstead.
“It’s been a smoke-and-mirrors show,” said Derby Line resident Vicky Lewis, who claimed Encore developers had “private meetings” with some town officials.
The suspicion cuts both ways: Smith says Vermonters have been making phone calls to their Québec neighbors and visiting Stanstead regularly to “put the fear of God” into people about the turbines. Encore Redevelopment principal Chad Farrell says that misinformation has “created this perception that we are moving entirely too fast, and that we don’t have the public good in mind. That’s completely false.”
Sunday’s rally was a chance for residents on both sides of the border to air their concerns. The Canadians clustered mostly on the north side of the lawn, Americans on the south, and conversations in French and English rippled through the crowd.
Jean-François Nadeau, a Montréal-based journalist and writer who is currently building a home in Stanstead, kicked off the rally with the comment, “Borders are accidents in history, and we can see that here.” The wind development is causing such a rift in the community, he continued, “we are building a border like we never had before.”
Lewis, who arrived at the rally with an antiwind placard around her neck, expressed sympathy for her neighbors to the north. “They have been totally shut out of the process,” she said, adding that struck her as unfair since the development will affect residents on both sides of the border.
Bethany Creaser watched the rally from the edge of the library lawn — one of the few, if not the only, wind development supporters at the event. She lives about three-quarters of a mile from one of the proposed turbine sites, near I-91, and suspects that the interstate — and the brightly lit customs station, which glows on the horizon at night — adversely affects her property values more than the turbines would.
“I’ve done my research,” says Creaser, who stuck to university- and government-funded studies in her reading, “and I don’t think they’re a problem.”
The real problem here, as in most wind debates throughout Vermont, is that both sides claim to have “done their research” — and yet have arrived at wildly different conclusions. Nye called the proposed development “an annihilation of peoples’ lives,” tearing up as she spoke about the project. Addressing the crowd, Derby Line resident Daria Mondesire likened the wind industry’s work in rural communities to the war on terror, adding that while “bin Laden may be dead, big wind” is alive and well.
After close to two hours, the rally dispersed. One Vermont woman called out across the divided library lawn, “Thank you, Stanstead!”
Nadeau, meanwhile, invited reporters to visit his property to see where one of the turbines is allegedly sited. Nadeau believes his home will be fewer than 200 meters from the windmill — far closer than would be required if the turbine were located in Canada.
In a later interview, Farrell says the closest residence would be 1200 feet from either of the two proposed turbines, noting that’s an example of the misinformation and “outright lies” going back and forth across the border.
Nadeau and other Québec residents also complained that Encore has been unresponsive to their questions. Farrell counters that the French Canadian opposition represents a total turnabout from last summer, when he held public meetings about the turbines for residents on both sides of the border.
In response to the fresh flurry of opposition, Farrell has slowed down the project timeline. Construction — which is contingent upon a certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board — won’t begin any sooner than 2013. Meanwhile, the PSB hasn’t yet ruled on whether Stanstead can participate in the proceedings. Because of the international nature of the project, Farrell concedes, “We are in somewhat uncharted waters here.”
That’s little comfort to Nadeau, whose home is — or rather, will be — tucked alongside a sleepy dirt road called Chemin Lagueux, east of Stanstead’s village center. The road runs east and west along the U.S.-Canadian border, parallel to an electric fence on the Vermont side that contains the green fields of the Chase dairy farm. Along the way is a sign, in French, that reads “health and quality of life,” with a red line drawn through an illustration of a turbine.
Jayne and Jonathan Chase were standing on the southern side of that fence when Nadeau and a small contingent of onlookers arrived after last Sunday’s rally. Jonathan Chase worked in the wind industry in the 1970s. When he first showed her this farm 15 years ago, Jayne says Jonathan took her to the top of a windy knoll and said, “This would be a great place for a wind turbine some day.” They happily made a deal with Encore to host one of the two. The other turbine would be located on land owned by Bryan Davis, who first applied to the Vermont SPEED program and then later approached Encore to oversee development.
Jayne says that opponents of the project have been misinformed about the possible detriments of wind turbines, especially allegations of noise and danger to public health.
“If it was going to disturb my quality of life, I wouldn’t allow it to happen,” she said.
Just then, tall, lanky Nadeau came bounding up the road. The rancor from the rally dissipated somewhat as he reached across the fence to shake Jonathan Chase’s hand. By all appearances it was a cordial conversation — both expressing the wish to be good neighbors — but neither party seemed swayed by the other’s position on the matter. When Jayne and Jonathan pointed out that their home will be as close as anyone’s to the turbines, Nadeau responded, “You should have concern about this.”
Interestingly, they had different ideas of where the turbine would be located — Jonathan Chase pointed south and east; Nadeau gestured to the west, closer to his own home. In so doing, his arm veered dangerously close to the electric fence. Like a good neighbor, Chase warned him the wire was coursing with electricity — yet another reminder of the oddity of the situation. “Seven thousand volts on there,” Chase said.