Wind farm proposal may reopen Champion lands debate

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(Host) A plan for a huge wind energy project in the Northeast Kingdom may re-ignite the legislative debate over the former Champion lands.

VPR’s John Dillon reports:

(Dillon) By any measure, the wind energy project planned for East Mountain and the surrounding ridges of Essex County is big. Energy entrepreneur Matt Rubin of Montpelier wants to build up to 50 wind turbines in this remote section of the Northeast Kingdom. Rubin says the project would generate 75 megawatts and would create jobs and pump tax money into a region that’s always struggled economically.

(Rubin) “I think the project would probably be one of the largest investments in Essex County in the range of $100 million, in an area where economic development is clearly needed. So I think there’s a lot of benefits.”

(Dillon) But the project faces political hurdles in Montpelier. Some of the turbines would be built on the former Champion timberlands. The property is now owned by a private timber company. But the state paid $4.5 million to keep the land open to the public. Last year, the Legislature was mired in debate for months over the conservation easements on the Champion land. These are the legal contracts that define how the land can, and cannot, be used.

The easements prohibit industrial development, so they’d have to be changed to allow the wind project. And that’s where things could get sticky in the Legislature. Last year, lawmakers refused to change the easements to accommodate sportsmen and camp owners who felt shortchanged by the Champion deal. Now, the Legislature may again revisit the Champion issue.

Robert Helm of Castleton was deeply involved in last year’s debate. He says if the easements are opened up to benefit the wind project, then last year’s Champion opponents will want to change the documents for their benefit as well.

(Helm) “Yeah, I’m pretty sure this would reopen the Champion debate. I mean, if somebody comes in here a year from now looking for an easement to do something, you’ve got your traditions organization there that they’re going in on that. They’re going to be zeroing in on that. Because they’re still upset with the response they got from the Legislature.”

(Dillon) The easements are owned by the state and the private Vermont Land Trust. The state, the Land Trust and the private timber owner would share one million dollars in annual lease payments from Rubin’s company. Darby Bradley is president of the Land Trust:

(Bradley) “There are certainly a number of arguments in favor of the project but I think there’s also some impacts. And before the Legislature makes a decision, I feel that all of the people and interest groups that participated in the Champion lands discussion – both when the legislation was going through and in the planning process later on, and anybody else who feels they have stake in it – should have a chance to learn what the project is all about and a chance to weigh in as to whether they think this is a good idea or a bad idea.”

(Dillon) But the prospect that the Legislature may again debate the Champion issue makes many lawmakers nervous.

For Vermont Public Radio, I’m John Dillon in Montpelier.

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