Hydro plan for falls in Middlebury eyed again

MIDDLEBURY — Communication is again flowing between town officials and a local family that is seeking to rekindle a small-scale hydroelectric operation at the Otter Creek Falls in downtown Middlebury.
The Holm family has been seeking to install a water turbine that would harness electricity from the creek as it flows through a flume under a building (owned by the Holms) that borders the south side of the Otter Creek Falls. The Holms’ original proposal would have produced around 1 megawatt of electricity per year for sale to area homes, businesses and the town of Middlebury.
But the Holms scuttled their project in 2009, citing a prolonged permitting process, mounting project costs, and a dispute with the town over water rights as among the reasons for withdrawing their application. Anders Holm announced early last year that the family was considering bringing in a silent partner to take another stab at the project.
It now appears as though the project is back on a more conciliatory keel.
Holm and Middlebury selectboard Chairman John Tenny confirmed last week that the two sides have re-entered discussions about the hydro project and how it could be fashioned to meet the Holms’ and the town’s mutual expectations.
To that end, selectmen have hired David Hallam — local project manager for the recently completed Cross Street Bridge — to serve as liaison for discussions about the project.
Both sides hailed Hallam’s hiring as a positive step that could advance the project, which will still need state and federal permits to proceed.
“He is an excellent individual with good personal-professional skills,” Tenny said of Hallam. “He will be the town’s point-person to discuss this (project) with the Holms.”
Holm anticipates discussions will center on a 1983 agreement that town officials had hammered out with Central Vermont Public Service Corp. when the state’s largest utility sought to resurrect a small hydro project at the Otter Creek Falls site. That project never came to fruition, but Holm believes the 1983 agreement could form the launching point for a new pact that would spell out water rights, easements, water flow criteria and eventual decommissioning of the water turbine, among other things.
“We are hoping to use (the 1983 agreement) as a template,” Holm said.
The Holms have hired a Maine-based firm to design a water turbine that would ensure water flow levels mandated by the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources (ANR). Holm said his family has already done some legwork with the ANR determining water flow ground rules, which he said call for a “minimum bypass flow of 324 cubic feet per second.” Keeping within those constraints, Holm said, would reduce the amount of state environmental studies to which the project would be subjected. Those flow numbers will also allow the family to build a slightly larger water turbine that would generate between 1.7 and 2 megawatts of electricity at peak operation, enough to power downtown Middlebury, according to Holm.
The Holms hope to secure the necessary state and federal permits this summer and then map out a construction timetable.
Town officials are pleased to see the hydro project back under discussion.
“I think the key question for the town is, ‘Do we have an opportunity for a viable project and business model going forward?’” Tenny said.
“We look forward to a discussion of the possibilities.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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