At town meeting this year, a handful of towns in the Newfound Lake region, and elsewhere, will take up questions related to wind farms. Many of these articles highlight the tensions between neighboring towns when one hosts a wind farm and its tax benefits, and the other just has to look at it. This dynamic often plays out in small town politics that may come to a head on town meeting day.
The troubles surrounding the Groton Wind Farm all started in the front yard of a retired Boston Police officer named Mario Rampino. The Operations and Maintenance Building for Groton Wind towers over his house on a hill across the road. It looks like a warehouse, surrounded with tall chain-link fences topped with barbed wire.
Rampino’s home used to be the last on this dirt-road.
“If you could only picture,” he told me when I visited him in January, “Road had to be eight-feet-wide, all forested and quiet.”
But then a couple of years ago came the O&M building, which it turns out was built in a different spot than Groton Wind’s owner, Iberdrola Renewables, had originally proposed.
“The building was supposed to have been up in the back, out of sight from everything,” Rampino explained.
He has since settled his issues with Iberdrola, but the movement of the building attracted the attention of a group of wind farm watchdogs. Cheryl Lewis and several others, who had been tracking the wind-farm since it was proposed, dug into the records, and found that Iberdrola had made more changes, to the positions of some roads and turbines even.
“Nobody had seemed to notice that the building was put in wrong place, the turbines weren’t where they were supposed to, that you know the building plans hadn’t been received by the fire marshal, and all that,” says Lewis, “And it’s a very scary thought that all these things can take place without oversight.”
Iberdrola argues that oversight came from environmental regulators at the DES, and that they did submit their changes through the proper channels. But the state disagrees, and the matter will be sorted out late this year.
But the issue has galvanized Lewis and some of the wind-farms most ardent opponents, many of whom live in the next town over in Rumney.
Most of the Impact, None of the Tax Break
Neighboring Rumney bears much more of the visual impact from the wind mills than Groton.
“Has that motivated, in my opinion, certain people to become involved in the process? Yes,” says Miles Sinclair, spokesman for the Groton Select board, “Are there certain people who have been against this idea from the outset? Yes.”
The town lines run right across the base of the hills that host the turbines. And while the impacts can extend out for miles, the tax benefits definitely don’t.
Ed Haskell – who chairs the Rumney Board of selectmen – sweeps his hand along a map of the town to show how much of it has a view of the wind farm. It’s a big sweep.
“If you go to Groton, you can’t see a windmill, but you can see every one of them from Rumney, and that upsets people a little bit,” says Haskell, “Rumney gets nothing out of it. We take care of the road to get in, but we get no tax-base at all from them.”
Contrast that with the enviable position Groton now finds itself in.
“If we just use the revenue from the wind-farm to reduce the tax rate, you could get it so-low that conceivably you could make it attractive for developers,” says Miles Sinclair.
Groton doesn’t want more development, so instead they’re considering using some of the tax money to lock up 2,700 acres of the town into conservation.
Tension and Suspicion
But the good fortune and extra income has led to tense relations with neighboring Rumney.
Groton has no fire department, and pays Rumney for a first responders contract. Sinclair claims since the wind farm went up there have been increases in the cost of that contract. He thinks wind farm opponents in Rumney are behind it.
Rumney roundly rejects the notion of any ill will toward Groton. Documents provided by the town show that Groton is not being targeted with cost hikes: virtually the same changes in the emergency response fee structure were applied to the town of Dorchester as well.
This isn’t the only place in New Hampshire where tensions between towns have risen after a wind farm came to town.
Voters in Goshen will decide on Saturday whether it should pull out of the school district it shares with another wind-farm host, Lempster. Once again, the trigger was the wind farm.
“I think there’s a feeling of inequality because of the wind-farm,” says Michelle Munson.
Lempster, hoping to better capitalize on the tax benefit from its wind farm, changed its school funding formula last year, so its residents would pay less. That in turn caused Goshen’s tax rate to bump up. So now Goshen voters are considering tuitioning their students to another school, however costly that might be.
Munson says if the vote goes through, both towns are likely to have to pay more.
Voters in Alexandria, Ashland, Bristol and Danbury will also take up warrant articles that would restrict or regulate wind farms. Some of the towns taking up these articles don’t have turbines proposed within their borders, but their neighbors do.
These voters there perhaps understand that whatever the benefits of wind farms, living next to them is unlikely to make small town politics any easier.
**Clarification: The story has been updated to better reflect the timing of the involvement of Cheryl Lewis and other interveners. They had been involved all through the permitting process for the wind farm. The story has been corrected to reflect this**