Chittenden County's First Wind Project Is Small, Local and, of Course, Generating Opposition
Unlike projects in Sheffield and Deerfield, the Georgia Mountain owners are Green Mountain entrepreneurs: David Blittersdorf, a Vermont native who started successful alternative energy companies in Hinesburg and Williston, has teamed up with the Harrison family of Georgia, who own a concrete business and 25,000-tap maple sugaring operation. Burlington-based Merchants Bank is financing the project on land owned by the Harrisons, and all the power produced will be sold to municipally owned Burlington Electric Department.
The scale is smaller than other wind farms, too — only four turbines on the twin peaks that span the Georgia-Milton town line, compared to 21 at Kingdom Community Wind in Lowell and 16 in Sheffield. From the summit of Georgia Mountain, the 65 400-foot turbines in New York’s Noble Altona Windpark look like matchsticks on the horizon.
But the fact that it’s homegrown hasn’t insulated the Georgia Mountain project from the type of division and conflict embroiling other wind developments around the state.
Neighboring property owners have complained about the constant rumble of trucks and explosions that have sent golf-ball-size “flyrock” onto their adjoining properties. Neighbors allege that one Saturday morning, work at the mountain started at 6:15 a.m. — 45 minutes earlier than the permit allows.
Georgia Mountain Community Wind has admitted to making mistakes, including blasting on Bennington Battle Day — a state holiday — which is prohibited under its state permit.
“We messed up,” said Martha Staskus, a project manager at GMCW and vice president of Waterbury-based Northeast Wind — one of almost two dozen local companies hired to work on the project. But Staskus insisted the project developers are trying to be good neighbors. For instance, she said abutting property owners have been notified at 8 a.m. on days when blasting would occur.
The developers are hustling to get the project online by December 31 to take advantage of up to $8 million in federal stimulus grants that are set to expire. Blittersdorf suspects that neighbors are trying to stall progress, knowing full well the project is happening within a tight time frame.
“They know we have a deadline that could kill us,” he said. “Basically, it could bankrupt me.”
Tensions boiled over last month when GMCW slapped Dan FitzGerald, a former Milton selectman, and his elderly mother, Jane FitzGerald, with an injunction and temporary restraining order for interfering with construction. FitzGerald’s mother owns 260 acres adjacent to the construction, a portion of which falls within the project’s 1000-foot blast zone. Dan FitzGerald refused to leave the area during a scheduled blast day, saying it would infringe on his family’s property rights.
GMCW called police to secure the blast zone, and a technician had to camp out overnight on the mountain because an explosive charge had been set but not detonated.
The next day, when FitzGerald and his sons returned to the property line, local law enforcement served him with the restraining order.
Staskus said the legal actions were a “last resort” to ensure public safety and to keep the project on schedule. On August 23, the developer issued a press release saying that preliminary blasting had been completed and both the injunction and restraining order against the FitzGeralds had been dropped.
The following day, the Vermont Public Service Board issued an order directing the developer to stop blasting in light of neighbors’ concerns. But neighbors complained that the action was too little too late; they had complained to the PSB seven weeks earlier — on July 3 — and only after blasting was complete did state regulators intervene.
“It leaves a really bad taste in your mouth,” said Melodie McLane, who lives nearby on Georgia Mountain Road.
Crews on Georgia Mountain are presently building the giant pads upon which the 426-foot turbines will sit. On a tour of the site last week, a crane hovered over the concrete and steel foundation taking shape on the mountain. Staskus said that when completed, the turbines will generate enough energy to power 4200 homes — supplying roughly 30 percent of Burlington Electric Department’s residential power needs. BED has a 25-year contract to purchase all of the wind farm’s power.
At the base of the mountain, brothers Kenneth and George Wimble were milking their herd of organic dairy cows. Sunlight filtered in through the barn door while cows rustled in their berths. Kenneth Wimble set down his milking kit and shrugged when asked about the wind project. Though both are listed among the neighbors who complained of blasting to the PSB, Kenneth Wimble said there’s not much use in dwelling on the project. He might not care for it, but he knows it’s going in.
The Wimbles are struggling to sell the 250-acre farm on which their family has worked for three generations. They’re not selling because of the wind project; rather, after 36 years of dairy farming, they’re ready to retire. But they haven’t found a buyer, and so far a few serious contenders have backed off after learning of the wind development.
Its construction sounds like a low rumble from the Wimbles’ farm on Georgia Mountain Road. On the other side of the mountain, though, Tom Hall has a front-row seat to the development. His home on Ted Road is located directly across from the gate to the wind project access road. Hall said he once counted 15 trucks go past in 14 minutes. From his front door, he can clearly hear the beeps of heavy trucks backing up and the screeching, squealing noise of grinding rocks.
“It sucks,” said Hall, who has lived here for 30 years after moving away from Connecticut to escape “the hustle and bustle.” He fought the project unsuccessfully for four years before the PSB and believes the developers are building the wind farm “for a few dollars in their own pocket.”
Blittersdorf, who was a late investor in the project, objected to Hall’s claim that developers are in it for the money. He said his interest in wind energy is a lifelong passion that first took root when he was growing up near Grandpa’s Knob in southern Vermont.
“I’ve taken my life’s assets and put them into this project,” said Blittersdorf, who founded NRG Systems in Hinesburg and now runs AllEarth Renewables in Williston. “I understand their passion for doing this, but at the same time it’s not legal. It’s not right, and the public good is not being served.”
Responding to Milton neighbors who have called him a “bully,” Blittersdorf said, “I’ve become a lightening rod for Annette Smith and Lukas Snelling,” referring to the leaders of the anti-big-wind groups Vermonters for a Clean Environment and Energize Vermont, respectively. Blittersdorf has known both for years but says he “totally” disagrees with their vision of Vermont’s energy future.
“We import over 90 percent of our energy,” he said, “and we have to do something different.”
Aside from a few vocal opponents, FitzGerald and others said they don’t think residents in Milton and Georgia are paying much attention to the Georgia Mountain project. FitzGerald rustled up around 350 signatures for a petition to oppose the project two years ago, but in the process realized many neighbors weren’t even aware the development had been proposed.
With turbine parts set to arrive by early October, FitzGerald and others are waiting to see what, if any, reaction the towers themselves will elicit once construction is complete.
“For some reason … that project seems to have flown under the radar. I think people in the area are probably going to be very, very surprised when they start seeing these things go up,” said Snelling of the group Energize Vermont. “Chittenden County seems to have ignored the wind issue, but with this project they’re going to get a lot of firsthand experience with it.”