Published May 17, 2012
STANSTEAD, Quebec – The winds blowing through Canada's broad St. Lawrence Valley and across Vermont's hilltops are stirring up an international tempest over which country's laws should govern how those breezes are harnessed for electricity.
Some residents of the Quebec town of Stanstead are upset about plans in Vermont to erect just south of the border two industrial-size wind turbines — one of which would be about 1,000 feet from a few Canadian and Vermont homes.
Quebec requires wind turbines to be at least 1,640 feet from homes, and the Canadian homeowners are demanding those rules be followed. But in Vermont, the allowable distance is determined by the sound of the spinning blades, and the project's developer says the turbines would meet those requirements.
The plan has yet to win approval from Vermont regulators. But the dispute has gotten so rancorous that the mayor of Stanstead threatened to cut off water to some homes on the American side. The issue has even come up on the floor of Canada's Parliament.
"You know, there really is no precedent to follow here," said Chad Farrell of Encore Redevelopment, the Burlington, Vt., company working with two dairy farmers to build the 425-foot windmills, each of which would be capable of producing enough electricity for about 900 homes.
Stanstead's Lynda Hartley lives on a horse farm about 3,700 feet from the turbine site, well beyond the Quebec setback distance, but is leading the opposition in the community. She said her 8-year-old autistic son is hypersensitive to noise.
"This is going to be stopped," she said. "I am not going to allow this to happen. This is crazy."
The Vermont farmers are counting on the money they would be paid for hosting the towers as a steady source of income in an era of up-and-down milk prices.
One of them, Bryan Davis, said his neighbors in Derby Line who live close by are not complaining. The opposition, he said, is "scaring people with these tactics."
It is the other proposed turbine in Derby Line that has generated most of the opposition. Seven homes in Quebec would be less than 1,640 feet from it. The owners of the farm on which it would be erected did not return calls for comment.
Julie Fauteux lives with her husband and two young children in Quebec, about 1,500 feet from where that second turbine would be. In front of her house is a sign in French that translates as "health and quality of life," with an image of a turbine inside a circle with a slash through it.
"There is not going to be any quality of life with the sound of this," Fauteux said. She added: "They don't consider the closeness of our house. In the United States there's no law about how close you can put one, but in Canada there is."
The farming villages of Stanstead, population 3,000, and its American twin, Derby Line, a section of the broader town of Derby, which has about 4,600 people, are practically one community, even though many people in Stanstead speak French as their first language and the international boundary cuts through yards and even houses. It was only after security was tightened following 9/11 that residents had to start reporting at border stations before visiting friends or relatives on the other side.
The breeze in Derby Line isn't as strong as it is on the mountaintops where most Vermont wind projects are situated, but it is steadier, making the village ideal for generating power, Farrell said. The whooshing of the turbines would meet Vermont's 45-decibel noise limit, he said.
Supporters say the turbines would produce green energy, create jobs during construction and provide income to the farmers. Opponents say wind power harms the environment, wouldn't be practical without huge government subsidies, and is an eyesore. The giant spinning blades in Derby Line would be visible for miles on both sides of the border.
Hartley said she and her neighbors did some research on the Internet and found complaints about shadows and glints of light from the turbines, noise and vibration, and electromagnetic radiation.
"It was amazing the different things that we heard and how horrible they were," she said. "It was things we'd never thought about."
Farrell said scientific studies have found the health concerns unfounded, and he added that those aren't even the real reasons for the opposition: "I think what it comes down to is some people just don't want to look at them."
Pat Parenteau, an environmental law professor at the Vermont Law School, said there is no law requiring a Vermont developer to follow Quebec rules, but that would be a good practice. It's a legal concept known as "comity."
"If the Canadian requirement is reasonable, there's sort of a diplomatic principle of why not honor it. If the shoe was on the other foot, wouldn't we want Canada to respect our laws and requirements?" Parenteau said. "That's soft law. That ain't hard law. It's simple respect."
Stanstead Mayor Philippe Dutil said he hasn't seen people in his community so worked up about something in Vermont since the early 1980s, when there was talk of building a nuclear waste dump in the state.
"I am there to defend my citizens. If my citizens are worried, I am standing behind them all the way," Dutil said.
Last month, he threatened to cut off a Vermont neighborhood served by a Stanstead water system. "I said that to catch everybody's attention. And it did," Dutil said.
Last week, a member of Parliament who represents the Stanstead area called on the Canadian government to "ensure that my citizens are consulted in the development of this type of project."
The project is awaiting approval from the Vermont Public Service Board. Farrell had hoped to finish the turbines in time to take advantage of a wind power tax credit that expires at the end of the year, but said he is willing to take extra time to work with the Canadians.
Still, Farrell said moving the turbines farther from the Quebec homes would just put them closer to Vermont houses.
"Every location has its challenges," he said.