Grafton weighs nonresidents’ role in any vote on wind turbines

Developer Iberdrola Renewables presented its plan for a 28-turbine wind project at a meeting in October. The project is proposed for the 5,000-acre Stiles Brook Forest, which straddles Windham and Grafton. File Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
GRAFTON — Second-home owners in town want a bigger say in whether Vermont’s largest wind turbine project moves forward.

It seems clear that these taxpayers, under Vermont law, are not entitled to participate in a legally binding vote because they do not technically live in Grafton.

But some argue that all taxpayers — whether residents or nonresidents — should be able to participate in some sort of referendum on the project. The results, according to a written request submitted to the Grafton Selectboard, should serve as “the formal and only position of the town of Grafton on the matter.”

“The way things stand now, we have no voice in whether this project happens or not, and we feel that’s an injustice,” said Jud Hartmann, a property owner and nonresident who presented the concept to the Selectboard this week. “So this is the beginning of a process to have our voice included in the debate.”

Developer Iberdrola Renewables has drawn up plans for Windham County’s first commercial wind turbines in the 5,000-acre Stiles Brook Forest, which straddles the towns of Windham and Grafton. A preliminary proposal calls for 28 turbines generating up to 96.6 megawatts of power. That would make the site Vermont’s biggest and most powerful wind energy installation.

Iberdrola presented its detailed plans for the first time at public forums in late October. But the company has not yet applied for a certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board.

Grafton wind
The October meeting where Iberdrola Renewables presented its plan for a 28-turbine wind project drew a crowd. File Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
There are strong feelings both for and against the project in both towns. Advocates cite the turbines’ renewable energy generation and the towns’ projected tax revenues from the site, while detractors worry about potentially detrimental effects on the ridge, property values and residents’ health.

Iberdrola administrators have said they want support in both towns before proceeding. In a mailing late last year, they wrote that “after a vote on a completed project proposal by the registered voters in Windham and Grafton, Iberdrola Renewables will respect the outcome of that vote.”

But some say it’s not enough to consider only the opinions of registered voters. Hartmann, who lists a Main Street address, told the Grafton Selectboard on Monday that “the phrase ‘taxation without representation’ comes to mind” if nonresident property owners are left out.

He presented a petition carrying the names of 35 property owners along with a letter asserting that “all members of the Grafton community should be polled to determine the town’s position.”

The letter pitches a referendum that would include all registered voters as well as all property tax payers. If a property is jointly held, the document suggests, all property holders would be entitled to vote.

That touched off a debate at the meeting. Some, including Selectboard Chairman Sam Battaglino, were supportive of the idea.

“I think the second-home owners should have a say. I think their position should be known,” Battaglino said. “I mean, some of these people have been here for generations. I think it’s factually correct that they do pay about 60 percent of Grafton’s taxes.”

“This is the biggest (wind) project in Vermont at this time, and it’s certainly the biggest project in Grafton’s history,” he added. “We might never have a project as big as this.”

Selectboard member Ron Pilette said nonresident taxpayers “should have a voice. The question is how to do it (in a way) that’s legal and acceptable to the extent that it can be acceptable to all of us.”

That’s what troubled others at the meeting. Some worried about setting a precedent for allowing nonresidents to vote on town affairs, and Town Administrator Rachel Williams said she didn’t see any way to allow nonresidents to participate in such a vote.

“Statutory law says it has to be done by registered voters,” Williams said at the meeting. “There is no other legal way to go around that.”

The Vermont League of Cities and Towns seconded that, with Executive Director Maura Carroll on Wednesday saying that “there is no provision in the (state) statutes or constitution allowing nonresidents to participate in a legally binding vote of the town.”

The question, then, seems to be whether the Grafton polling could happen in some other way. The nonresidents’ letter to the Selectboard claimed that “there are clear precedents in Vermont for organizing such a referendum,” citing wind turbine referendums that included nonresident taxpayers in towns including Brighton, Londonderry and Newark.

It’s not clear, though, whether some of those votes could be classified in that way. In Brighton, for instance, Town Clerk Teresa Potwin said officials in 2012 asked for opinions on a proposed turbine project via a mailing.

Liisa Kissel
Liisa Kissel is an opponent of a wind power project proposed for Grafton. Photo by Mike Faher/VTDigger
“We had a poll that had no legal authority,” Potwin said.

And in Newark, Town Clerk Joan Bicknell said voters in 2011 decided to amend the town plan in response to a turbine proposal. While nonresidents were allowed to participate in the debate about the project, they did not vote, Bicknell said.

That’s not to say Grafton couldn’t fashion its own solution to the representation problem. Battaglino asked those at Monday’s meeting to allow the Selectboard to “do the research before we jump to any conclusions.”

Liisa Kissel, a turbine opponent who is a director of the nonprofit Grafton Woodlands Group, said the nonresidents’ letter should not be viewed as a formal petition.

“I think you have to look at this as a request from this group of people who are otherwise voiceless in the town,” Kissel said. “They are asking for the town to find a way.”

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  • robert fuller

    Well if non-resident tax payers could vote there wouldn’t be such a thing as a non-residential tax rate. School budgets would also suffer since, their kids go to school elsewhere. I’m sure the vast majority of Vermont towns would rather not give voting power to non-residents.

    • Randy Jorgensen

      Perhaps on school budgets, but what about bond votes to purchase new fire equipment? These are all important choices that effect non residents that the state of Vermont HEAVILY relies on.

    • Bradford Little

      Nonsense…some nonresidents might think that way, but to assume that non residency promulgates a sense of selfish disregard for the education of children is a false assumption . There are probably just as many voting residents who would like to cut school budgets.

      • robert fuller

        Non-residents are most likely in the top 3-5% of income earners. Do you really think they are all about spreading the wealth?

        • Bradford Little

          No…I don’t think they are “all about spreading the wealth”….that’s a very broad term with varied interpretations and a topic for another discussion , not this one. Non residency does NOT mean “non caring” or “non supportive” or “no interest” My heritage was one of “non residency” , I was born in Vermont but grew up in a military family….i was a resident of Air Force bases in many states! My family always took an interest in the communities in which we were located. I guess what bothers me the most is the term “non resident”….. I am a resident, albeit “part time” and that in no way means my sincerity or interest is any less than someone who is “full time.” Finally….does being in the top 3-5% of income mean you are a “bad person?” I am no where near there…..but i realize that so many of the things that I enjoy: preservation of nature, historical preservation, etc. would NOT survive if so many of those “high income folks” did not also share those interests and make significant contributions.

  • Pete Novick

    Oh, non-resident homeowners can still vote.

    They can vote with their feet.


    • Bradford Little

      ….and some are doing just that….particularly the older retired folks who’s ability to keep up with the tax increases is constantly diminishing.

  • Roger Sweatt

    I would say that this is taxation without representation. If they cannot vote in town ,then they should be able to express their opinions about the impact on the value of their investment in Vermont. Like the person said, they can invest in a pair of expat shoes.

  • Tom Kauffmann

    In my opinion, once we let nonresidents vote on local issues, we open up ourselves to potentially damaging effects in every area of our lives. While I can sympathize with their concerns, I also would question whether they would want an outsider voting on their local issues?

    • Annette Smith

      These are not binding votes. They help towns understand the wishes of their taxpayers. And in the towns of Grafton and Windham, those “outsiders” pay a majority of the taxes. To a person, second homeowners around areas threatened by wind turbines have told me that if they build them they will leave. Why wouldn’t you want to know what they think?

  • Bradford Little

    Non residents have no say in anything in Vermont….but as noted, pay a whopping amount of tax. I am a non resident….was born in Vt. as were my ancestors ….going back to one of the founders of Springfield and even back to Remember Baker of Arlington…..have owned family property for 50 years, pay nearly 9k in property tax every year, support the Vt State Historical Society and other organizations…..but get no vote, no say, and in my town – no services. Am 70yrs old and can’t get a senior pass to the state parks because I am a “non resident” but my time there and roots are probably greater than the Hon. Bernie Sanders who qulifies for a “senior pass!”? Vermont depends heavily upon the “non residents”….some gesture of appreciation could be made.

    • robert fuller

      You could change your residency to VT.

  • samuel shultis

    They let out of state students vote on local issues …. isn’t this how Bernie ever got elected?

    • Randy Jorgensen

      Yet those students can’t get instate tuition…. double standard?

  • A town’s selectboard has every right to poll non-resident property owners on an issue in order to inform its decisions.

    On an issue as important as industrial wind turbines, the selectboard may even have an obligation to do so.