New Haven residents want say on energy project
NEW HAVEN — At last week’s town meeting, New Haven residents made it very clear to their elected officials that they want a say in whether a high-voltage power line and converter station is built in town.
On the floor of the Feb. 29 meeting, New Haven residents passed two straw polls asking the town to gather more information about Anbaric Transmission’s Vermont Green Line proposal and then to hold a town-wide Australian ballot vote on whether to accept Anbaric’s offer.
Selectboard members present at the meeting, for the most part, said they would put the issue to a vote.
Developers of the project also said they would wait for the citizens to weigh in, but left open the possibility of moving their power line elsewhere if the process took too long.
“To the extent that the permitting process timeline becomes threatened by the negotiations we will have to begin looking at surrounding communities for the converter station,” Joe Rossignoli, of Anbaric partner National Grid, told the Independent. “And, in fact, we’ve already begun doing a scan of real estate opportunities in the surrounding communities for the converter station.”
AT TOWN MEETING
The two straw polls were part of a nonbinding article giving residents the opportunity to discuss pressing business at town meeting.
“I knew it was a hotbed issue in the town that people were going to want to discuss,” New Haven Moderator Pam Marsh said in an interview later in the week. “(On the first straw poll), the upshot was that it was overwhelming that the town wants to vote on this issue and that they want to do it by Australian ballot.
“The second straw poll was essentially, ‘Do you want to know our opinion on whether this should go forward or not right now based on the limited information that we have?’” March continued. “And the upshot of that poll was overwhelmingly that people wanted to wait until more information was available. It was overwhelming; it wasn’t even close … at least two-thirds of the assembly wanted to wait.”
Since first introducing the project at a joint selectboard and planning commission meeting last August, spokespersons for the Vermont Green Line have repeatedly said that the project would not proceed without New Haven’s buy in. But this is the first time the townspeople of New Haven have had the opportunity to weigh in with such clarity and in such numbers.
Officially, the town selectboard is vested with the authority to make such a decision on its own. Actual authority to greenlight or quash the project rests with the Vermont Public Service Board, to which the Vermont Green Line project must make its application for a certificate of public good.
But VGL representatives have repeatedly pledged not to go to Montpelier without New Haven’s blessing.
The Vermont Green Line is a joint project of Anbaric Transmission and National Grid to bring hydro and wind power from upstate New York via cable under Lake Champlain and into the New England power grid in New Haven. The electricity would travel by underground high voltage direct current cable to a new converter station that would transform it into alternating current power and plug it into the VELCO substation. The power is destined for ratepayers in Massachusetts, Connecticut and Rhode Island.
The project would bring New Haven roughly $1 million annually and a number of other enticements, including a $3 million fire station, according to developers’ pitch to the town last December.
Close to two hours of town meeting were spent discussing the project. Marsh said she knew the discussion would likely be lengthy, but she did not know it would lead to the two nonbinding votes.
About an hour into the discussion, there were questions about whether and how the selectboard would bring the issue to the town and Marsh asked if those assembled wanted to bring it to a straw vote. There was a resounding yes.
New Haven resident Tim Bouton then asked if the current selectboard members and candidates for selectboard would first weigh in on where they stood on the issue. Each selectboard member and candidate spoke directly to the importance of holding a vote by Australian ballot. All present — current board members Kathy Barrett, Carole Hal and Doug Tolles, and candidates Bridget Kipp, John Roleau and Dan Monger — gave a clear yes, with the exception of Selectman Jim Walsh, who spoke more directly about the importance of continuing negotiations “to see where we’re going to go.”
Selectman Doug Tolles added one possible exception, which would be if the experts hired by the town uniformly rejected the aspects of the project as “odious.”
Having heard directly from the selectboard and candidates (Selectman Steve Dupoise was out of town and so did not attend town meeting), Marsh then asked for a nonbinding vote from the floor.
No hands were raised, when she asked, first, “Is there anybody here who does not want to have any town vote on Anbaric?”
A few raised their hands in support of a vote via town meeting. “Some sentiment for that but not a lot,” Marsh observed.
A “smattering of people,” in Marsh’s words, felt that “the selectboard should be free to say no without a town vote.”
Almost all hands shot up at “How many want a vote by Australian ballot.”
After about another 20 minutes of discussion, a second straw poll was called to see if residents, knowing what they knew as of Monday, Feb. 29, were ready to say yea or nay to the project or if they instead wanted more information. Overwhelmingly, said they did not yet know enough about the project to make an informed choice.
As part of the town’s negotiations, Anbaric/National Grid has put $75,000 in escrow for the town to hire its own experts in such areas as sound, visual impact and electrical engineering. According to a statement from Richard Saudek, the attorney hired by the town to help it in its negotiations over the project, confidential negotiations are under way and the principal issues being addressed include sound, siting and screening, safety, property values and financial terms.
After the public made clear its desire to vote on the power line and converter station project, VGL representatives reiterated their pledge not to go against the wishes of the town.
In a letter published in the March 3 Independent, National Grid U.S. Business Development Director Joe Rossignoli wrote: “We maintain our pledge that the Vermont Green Line will not move forward without the support of the town of New Haven. At Town Meeting Day we heard that most New Haven residents would like to have a vote of this project by Australian ballot, a process that we support and whose outcome we will honor.”
When asked by the Independent later in the week how that pledge would specifically affect Anbaric/National Grid’s timeline in applying to the Vermont Public Service Board for a certificate of public good, Rossignoli said, “Our plan is to wait to make that petition until the vote has taken place.”
That’s when he stipulated that the VGL partnership would also need to consider other locations for the converter station if the delay put the permitting process too far off track.
“The negotiations continue with the selectboard,” Rossignoli said. “But though we do pledge to wait until after the vote occurs, there is certainly a timeline around our permitting process.”
Rossignoli declined to say which other communities the VGL partnership had scanned at this time.
Reporter Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].
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