New Haven town leaders struggle with powerline
NEW HAVEN — A recent vote on the proposal to build a large converter station to accommodate a 400-megawatt power line that would bring renewable energy through New Haven revealed a selectboard divided in its assessments of the project’s pros and cons.
The Vermont Green Line project would bring New Haven roughly $1 million annually and a number of other enticements, according to developers’ pitch to the town last December.
But for a town that sees itself as badly used by one utility project after another, the dollar signs in some residents’ eyes are equally met with skepticism and concerns from others about quality of life.
Among the five members of the New Haven selectboard, one voted in favor of the project, two opposed it, and two abstained in a poll at their Jan. 19 meeting.
“It was a test to see who on the selectboard wants to proceed with this vs. someone like me who has more than heard enough and doesn’t want to play this game any more,” said Selectman Doug Tolles.
For Tolles the vote provided “a polaroid snapshot” of where different selectboard members stand in the decision-making process vis-a-vis the proposed converter station.
Tolles himself made the motion to support the Vermont Green Line proposal, which is backed by Anbaric Transmission LLC and National Grid.
“I made a motion — and I made it clear I had no intention of voting for it — but I made a motion that the selectboard votes to support the Anbaric proposal as it was proposed,” said Tolles.
Selectman Jim Walsh then seconded the motion.
“They (the other selectboard members) asked me what exactly I meant and I explained that if you want to see them build this with all the terms and conditions and the offers they’ve made you vote yes and if you want to see them go away you vote no,” Tolles recounted.
Selectman Steve Dupoise voted yes, Tolles and Walsh voted no, and selectboard members Kathleen Barrett and Carole Hall both abstained.
Dupoise and Hall are the two selectboard members appointed to negotiate with Anbaric Transmission and its investment partner National Grid.
Lacking three votes for or against, the vote did not enact any changes.
Barrett, the board chair, last week said that she abstained because the selectboard is still gathering information, because negotiations are still ongoing, and because the motion itself — offered extemporaneously — didn’t spell out “the proposal as proposed” in sufficient detail.
“The motion was to support Anbaric and their current proposal,” said Barrett. “I don’t know what their current proposal is. That’s a moving target. They have not solidified what the project is going to look like. So that’s why I abstained. There was not enough information in that motion for me to be able to vote one way or the other.”
Tolles said he brought the question to a vote because he feels he’s seen enough already.
“Last Tuesday, I expressed my opinion that Anbaric was a less than honorable partner and playing us for fools and slow walking this thing,” he said. “If I’m slow walking you I promise you stuff and I keep promising you stuff, but I never quite deliver and I’m stalling for time.”
Predominant amongTolles’s concerns is what he perceives as Anbaric’s actions — and lack of actions — in terms of compensating property owners who would be directly affected by the 400MW converter station. Tolles said that he’s spoken directly to about eight families and has been present in conversations with about two dozen.
In all of these conversations, Tolles said, “I’ve had no one say they made any progress at all. Every single one of them claiming they’ve met with Anbaric and nothing but dissatisfied, and in some cases were treated very rudely — I wasn’t there I don’t know if it’s true. But this is the report I got and it doesn’t make me feel good.”
Tolles continued, “We’re talking a small sample set but nonetheless, I’ve heard this week after week from the adjoiners, neighbors, abutters, whatever you want to call people who say they’re going to be negatively impacted. Of the ones who have met with Anbaric, not one of them is the least bit satisfied.”
At the Jan. 19 selectboard meeting, Tolles said, he asked the residents observing the meeting for a show of hands of “everyone who lives close enough that they think they would be negatively impacted.” Tolles said that 14 people raised their hands out of about 22 in attendance and that out of that 14 only four people (two of them a couple) had been contacted.
Tolles said he then asked if anyone had gotten an offer.
“They said ‘no’ and I said, ‘Did anybody get a promise of anything, even a process?’ and they said ‘no.’ And I said, ‘So basically you all got nothing?’ And they said ‘Yeah, we got nothing,’” he recounted.
Anbaric spokesperson Alex MacLean took issue with this representation of her company’s interactions with New Haven residents.
“That’s disappointing to hear. I would not characterize our conversations with the abutters like that,” she said. “I think we’ve actually had very constructive conversations with the abutters, and I think the important thing for people to remember is that this is just a very long process. I understand that people may want answers or results on day one, but this is a project that if it moves forward will not be built and online until 2019 or 2020. We have years to go and it’s just a process that takes longer than a few days.”
Part of the difference between MacLean’s and Tolles’s characterization of the ongoing negotiations with homeowners is that each defines the affected stakeholders quite differently.
As far as MacLean sees it, VGL has spoken with all affected parties, which for the power line developers means the seven households it has identified as owning property that directly “abuts” the proposed site of the converter station.
“As of today we’ve spoken with every single abutter. As of this upcoming Monday we will have met with every single abutter,” said MacLean. “This is literally those who own property that abuts the property where it will be.”
MacLean also made clear that for Anbaric and National Grid, there is a clear distinction between negotiating terms and compensating those who are physical abutters and those whose property would not physically abut but who feel they would be negatively affected.
Asked is there a kind of “line in the sand” between VGL’s willingness to negotiate financially with abutters and nonabutters, MacLean explained that there was.
“Well, what we’ve said to the abutters is that we will be hiring a third party entity that will be doing an assessment of the impact of the converter station upon their property. We hope to have this third party engaged within the next couple of weeks. And in terms of — you know you asked about a line in the sand that has to be drawn somewhere — we have determined that that third party entity will be doing that evaluation for property owned by the abutters.”
Part of the difference between MacLean’s and Tolles’s characterization of the ongoing negotiations with homeowners also seems to be differences between what VGL has said in earlier public statements and how some of those statements are being interpreting now.
In VGL representatives’ written answers to the New Haven selectboard’s 69 questions, posted on the town website, VGL stated its desire to “undertake a process that measures and compensates any impacts to those within the vicinity of the converter station,” and also pledged to “work with the town and landowners adjacent to the proposed converter station to establish appropriate mitigation measures.”
Later in the same document, VGL stated that “the area to be designated an impact area will need to be determined in concert with the town.”
Anbaric also pledged publicly that it would not proceed with the project without New Haven’s buy in.
At the Nov. 3 selectboard meeting, for example, VGL spokesperson Joe Rossignoli said, “We are not here to go to Montpelier and overrule the town on this project. If this project isn’t right for New Haven it’s not going to get built. We are absolutely going to go into permitting with New Haven by our side or we are not going to go to the state to get the project permitted.”
Rossignoli is director of U.S. Business Development for National Grid, Anbaric’s investment partner in the VGL, and a key player in negotiations with New Haven.
Whether the project in fact “goes into permitting with New Haven by (its) side” remains to be seen. As reported in the minutes posted for the Jan. 19 selectboard meeting, “Anbaric expects to file their 45-day notice to the Public Service Board in late March.”
PROS AND CONS
Concerns about the converter station voiced so far have included noise, light pollution, fair compensation for property owners whose property values might be affected, health and safety, and how the additional 400 megawatts of power might affect the VELCO substation and transmission lines.
Anbaric Transmission officials have stated repeatedly that upgrading the lines would likely be a deal breaker for them because they would have to cover the cost. Analysis of how the proposed Vermont Green Line would affect the New England electrical grid is still under way, but is expected soon.
On the plus side, the converter station would bring the town roughly $300,000 a year in municipal taxes plus an added influx of roughly $700,000 a year for 20 years (the latest proposal put this as whatever figure would make up the difference between municipal taxes and $1 million) to use as the town sees fit. Additionally, Anbaric has pledged to finance a new firehouse of up to $3 million for the New Haven Fire Department, among other benefits proposed to the community.
After Tolles and Walsh tried to “force the hands” of the other selectboard members with their impromptu vote on the VGL, the board went into executive session — from 11:05 until 11:50 p.m. — to discuss the terms of the current negotiations. After exiting executive session, another long discussion of VGL (and a few other agenda items) lasted until 12:50 a.m.
The upshot of the final part of the meeting, according to both Tolles and Barrett, was that pending Anbaric’s acceptance of certain terms discussed in the executive session the selectboard would then authorize Hall, Dupoise, town attorney Cindy Hill and attorney Richard Saudek to hire the necessary independent experts to get clearer answers on noise, light, aesthetics, etc., using funds from Anbaric.
When asked if the selectboard would at some point put a vote to the town, either binding or nonbinding, Tolles said that has yet to be determined but the Vermont Green Line would not be on the Town Meeting Day ballot. Tolles said the selectboard needs to get more solid answers to residents’ questions about the project and still needs to do more outreach so that voters are as informed as possible. He cited the planning commission’s public forum in the fall as a good example of a town committee coming up with a useful mechanism to both inform the public and solicit public feedback.
“We need to come up with a best mechanism for how we would make people as informed as we accurately can so they can make the best decision. We haven’t gotten that far yet.”
Reporter Gaen Murphree is reached at [email protected].