BY RICHARD INGERSOLL
GRAFTON, Vt. – The Grafton Select Board meeting held Monday, May 16 got off to a disturbing start. Select Board Chairman Gus Plummer started the meeting with a public announcement that he was resigning. Days earlier, Gus had received a threatening, handwritten note stuck in the door of the town office. The note ended with “this is warning #1”. In an emotional statement to the Board and attendees, Gus, very upset, announced his resignation and left the meeting.
With that, the meeting proceeded with Vice Chair Al Sands leading the discussion. Sands is the Select Board member most responsible for the (controversial) invitation for Attorney Richard Saudek to address the meeting. Saudek is a former Chairman of the Vermont Public Service Board….the 3-person state agency who will make the final decision as to whether the Atlantic Wind Project will be approved or not. Saudek’s current practice includes representing VT towns in negotiations with large utility developers (like Iberdrola). So it was hard to distinguish whether he was offering friendly advice or interviewing for a job.
He began by saying that the state of VT has made our state very attractive for these large renewable energy development projects. He also said that there is a lot of political pressure, both in Montpelier and Washington, to develop these projects. Early in his almost one hour presentation, he said that the VT Public Service Board would be “stupid, crazy” to overrule the sentiments of the townspeople. But the rest of the presentation consisted of how other towns had negotiated their contracts with these large developers, and how Grafton might navigate their agreement with Iberdola should the project be approved.
There was discussion about harm to many of the residents…property devaluation, views, sound issues, etc., and Saudek offered no good option for these residents other than to try to negotiate directly with the developer up front, or sue the developer after the fact. He mentioned how Iberdola was not known for it’s sensitivity, and suggested that the town stay out of these individual disputes. Some residents wondered how they would find the financial resources to bring a lawsuit against the developer if it came to that, and the reality is that there would be little recourse.
The residents of Grafton will vote on the project, but not the vacation homeowners, if selectman Al Sands has his way. Second homeowners make up a large percentage of the population, and pay taxes to the town. Without their vote, the towns’ opinion toward the project will clearly be minimized. There was a collective objection from the 60 or so residents at the meeting when Sands announced that he was not in favor of the non-resident vote. Fewer voters = less objection.
When asked how this project could be stopped before it begins, Saudek suggested that Grafton should hire the experts/lawyers needed to present their case to various state agencies, and push back against the lawyers and lobbyists for Iberdola currently entrenched in Montpelier.
He mentioned that Ibredola has already invested millions of dollars in this project, and is not expected to walk away without a fight. Regardless, it will cost the town of Grafton a lot of money to fight this project, win or lose.
The residents seem conflicted and starved for information. But even if they vote against the project, it does not necessarily mean the project won’t go ahead anyway. If it is approved in Montpelier, than all Grafton can do is negotiate their best deal, at which point Saudek may be a viable hire. The upside is significant additional annual revenue to the town. The downside is Grafton will cease to be quiet, scenic Vermont village that attracted these residents in the first place.