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Potential new players emerge on Middlebury hydro scene

MIDDLEBURY — The town of Middlebury has withdrawn from a non-binding agreement with the Holm family for development of a hydroelectric project at the Otter Creek Falls.
This opens the door for other entities that have recently expressed interest in harnessing the immense power potential at one of the downtown’s most scenic locations.
David Hallam serves as Middlebury’s project manager for issues relating to hydroelectricity at the town-owned “Powerhouse” site to the northeast of the Otter Creek Falls near the Marble Works. He confirmed on Tuesday that Natel Energy and New England Hydro have both expressed interest in studying the hydropower potential at the long-defunct Powerhouse property, which was once home to the David Page Cotton Mill.
“I think if we’re going to talk to other people, we should withdraw from this agreement,” Hallam told the selectboard at its Tuesday evening meeting.
Before entertaining these other hydro inquiries, selectboard members felt they needed to re-examine the progress/potential of Anders and Erik Holm’s longstanding effort 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) on the southwest side of the Otter Creek Falls.
The Holm family, operating as Middlebury Electric, has been working for more than a decade to re-establish hydropower at that location. The Holms have encountered some setbacks along the way, largely related to state and federal permitting requirements.
Town officials have sought to work with Middlebury Electric on logistics, water rights and other issues related to their project. To that end, the Holms and town signed a non-binding term sheet on Feb. 13, 2015, calling for, among other things:
•  Middlebury Electric to keep the town informed on its financing, permitting, design, construction and operation of the project. For its part, the company would provide the town with an annual credit based on power generated, with the intent of offsetting electricity use in the town offices through a program known as “net metering.”
•  The town to make the community’s water rights available to Middlebury Electric through an easement, lease or “other suitable instrument.”
The term sheet gave both parties the option of pulling out of the agreement. Specifically, it gave the town the right to step away if “Middlebury Electric fails to construct the project or otherwise fulfill its obligations under the agreement.”
Selectboard members unanimously decided on Tuesday (with Chairman Brian Carpenter absent) that Middlebury Electric had not made enough progress toward bringing its project to fruition.
“Since (Feb. 13, 2015), the parties have worked in good faith to advance the project, but have thus far been unable to find a feasible path forward,” the board stated in its decision to withdraw. “Due to the lack of progress on the originally contemplated project, the town has decided to expand the scope of the options under consideration to include possible hydroelectric projects in other locations and with other potential developers.”
Board members stressed they will continue to support Middlebury Electric’s efforts and said they’re open to signing a new term sheet with the Holms if their project advances.
“This doesn’t mean that we won’t continue to be involved if Middlebury Electric does advance their plan, and I certainly hope that’s the case,” selectboard Vice Chairman Nick Artim said. “But for now, based on the suggestions we’ve had, it seems like leaving options open is in Middlebury’s best interest, so we can make something happen.”
Artim lamented the absence of a hydro project at the falls.
“As long as I’ve been on the board — nine-plus years — there’s been an ongoing effort to develop a hydroelectric facility in downtown Middlebury on the river,” Artim said. “We’ve all watched a lot of electricity go over that waterfall every day and have thought how wonderful it would be if we could use it. Unfortunately, progress has been rather elusive.”
Meanwhile, the Holms confirmed — through a series of emails to town officials — their ongoing interest in seeing a hydropower project beneath their property at the falls. They noted in a Nov. 2 email to Hallam that their research has indicated hydroelectric development of the Marble Works side of the falls would be “prohibitively expensive even in the best of circumstances, due the poor condition and potential for contamination from the site.
“We would still welcome a fresh look at the site, but would ask for a level of transparency regarding site plans that the town itself required from us and was provided willingly,” they added in their email. “Plans from any developer will need to meet or exceed those we have provided but have thus far been absent from discussion. We look forward to working with Middlebury as well as local experts on moving forward.”
On Tuesday, the Middlebury selectboard members:
•  Took their first look at two potential re-designs of Triangle Park and a development of a new “Lazarus Family Park” that would be built off Printer’s Alley on the site of the former Lazarus Department Store. The Independent will post those designs at addisonindependent.com and publish them in an upcoming issue of the paper with an accompanying article.
The selectboard will seek feedback on the plans at its regularly scheduled meeting on Tuesday, Nov. 27, before picking a preferred design for each park on Dec. 11.
Both sets of designs depict pathways, landscaping, green space and benches. The improvements are expected to be funded at federal/state expense as part of the multi-year downtown rail bridges project that will hit high gear next spring.
•  Agreed to the Better Middlebury Partnership proposal to end the promotional Neighbors Together Midd Money Match program on Nov. 30, which sets aside $10 in “Middlebury Money” for shoppers for every $100 they spend at local businesses. BMP Coordinator Karen Duguay noted that as of Nov. 13, only $220 in Midd Money Match cards has been redeemed for Middlebury Money. Organizers had set aside $20,000 in rewards. That money instead will be repurposed for other downtown Middlebury promotional efforts, including some Middlebury Money giveaways to participants in the upcoming “Midd Night Strolls” evening shopping hours on Dec. 6 and 13.
The Independent will provide more details on those “stroll” events as they become available.
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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