by Thomas P. Caldwel
ALEXANDRIA — With a majority of the residents opposing the development of a wind farm here, the Board of Selectmen concluded Tuesday night's meeting by agreeing to send a letter to Iberdrola Renewables, Inc., and to the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee (SEC) stating their rejection of a proposed contract with the developer.
The selectmen had withheld their own opinions of Iberdrola's proposal for 23 wind towers in Alexandria and Danbury — eight of them within Alexandria — in order to hear first from their constituents and to give fair consideration to the company's proposal. Their reluctance to openly take a position, however, was disturbing to the emotionally charged crowd that filled the Town Hall.
When pressed to say what they were hearing from the people, the selectmen agreed that most people were opposed to the plan. Asked about their own positions, Donald Sharp said, "I've always been against it. But if this crowd said the opposite, and were in favor of it, I'd change my position because I serve you."
George Tuthill had a more measured response, focusing only on the company's proposal for payments in lieu of taxes (PILOT). Iberdrola offered to make even payments of $11,000 per megawatt of installed capacity the first year, with 2.5 percent increases in the ensuing years, rather than making regular tax payments based on assessed value. "We would give away millions with this agreement," Tuthill said.
Chair Kenneth Hall said he was still trying to keep an open mind and he was therefore "on the fence".
"I don't think you're on the fence any more," one person in the audience called out. "I think you got pushed off."
When State Representative Paul Simard of Bristol asked, "Would you be willing to refuse that offer and send a letter saying so to Iberdrola and the SEC?" all three selectmen said they would.
Much of the meeting focused on the power of the SEC, which many felt would approve the wind farm even over the objections of the towns affected. Fear of the loss of home rule has prompted some residents to seek help from outside experts to help them create a "rights-based ordinance" or "RBO" to provide a legal basis for the people to have the final say.
Roland Richards, who has spent a considerable amount of time touring wind farms and believes they provide a viable solution to New Hampshire's energy needs as aging electric plants retire, complained about having outsiders dictate how the town addresses its issues. Choosing an RBO to counter the SEC is not promoting home rule, he maintained.
Richards said much of the information circulating about wind farms is incorrect and he said the town should consider the PILOT agreement as a good place to start, but that it could look to do better.
Others said the proposal wasn't worth considering, as it favored the utility. While the company set a fee at $11,000 per megawatt of installed power, it also put in provisions for reducing that payment in the event of "force majeure" — typically acts of God such as earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. In the proposed agreement, Iberdrola included such things as strikes, lockouts, fires, breakage or accidents to machinery, and even "orders of any kind of any governmental authority or any civil or military authority". That language would absolve the company of payments if the State Fire Marshal imposed a cease-and-desist order, as it did with the company's Groton facility, for failing to file the proper documentation and provide required safety features.
The agreement did offer an additional $35,000 for the project substation and $60,000 in payments prior to commercial operation, and noted that other fees, such as land use change taxes and timber taxes, would be paid in addition to the PILOT funds. In all, the company estimated it would pay the town $5.9 million over 15 years.
In addition to the PILOT agreement, the company had two other proposals for the town to consider. One would pay up to $10,000 in legal and consulting expenses the town would incur while assessing local impacts and benefits. The other addressed issues ranging from emergency response to damage to town roads during the construction phase.
Speakers said both of those agreements fell short of covering the real expenses involved.
Jim White noted that Iberdrola is being sued "all over the world" and he asked why the town would even consider negotiating with the company.
Carol Jewell said that, instead of talking about money, the town should be talking about the quality of life that would be lost if wind turbines were placed on all the ridges.
Tom Fisher of the Appalachian Mountain Club's Cardigan Lodge said the AMC is filing as an intervenor to oppose the project. "The construction of an industrial-scale wind farm in such close proximity to a premier outdoor recreational destination would significantly degrade the quality of the visitor experience," the AMC said in a position paper. "At their closest, the 492-foot-tall turbines will be less than four miles from the summit of Cardigan Mountain, AMC's Cardigan Lodge, and Newfound Lake — a distance at which they will be an overwhelmingly dominant and incongruous feature in this relatively natural landscape."
Bridgewater Selectman Terry Murphy said his board has voted to intervene, as well, and is willing to contribute to the cost of studies.
"Typically, a PILOT agreement is short-term, in order to encourage a business to locate in a town; not something to go out 20 years," Murphy said.
Janet Cote of Bristol said that town's selectmen will likely take up the matter of joining as intervenors, as they see this as a regional issue, not something limited to limited to Alexandria and Danbury.
Gene Banks of Bridgewater said he was always interested in wind power and he supported the Groton project, but he learned a lot after that project was built. "Many things they predict don't happen," he said. "The decommissioning costs are huge, and it dwarfs the small amount of money you'll get."
When it was clear that the selectmen would not approve the PILOT agreement as presented, Murphy urged them to have a fallback position in case the project does win SEC approval. "The SEC can't force to you to agree to this PILOT agreement," he said. "You can set the terms. You should do the research to be prepared in case they do get it through."