New Haven approves $15,000 to fight VELCO lines
By JOHN FLOWERS
NEW HAVEN -- Local voters on Monday agreed to spend an additional $15,000 for legal expenses in New Haven's ongoing battle to influence a proposed major upgrade of Vermont Electric Power Co. (VELCO) transmission lines through town.
Almost 70 residents showed up for the special town meeting, which was essentially a referendum on whether voters wanted to continue to financially support a legal challenge of VELCO's Northwest Reliability Project.
The Vermont Public Service Board (PSB) is expected to rule in mid-January on whether to give VELCO the go-ahead for the $128 million project, through which the company would string more powerful electrical lines on taller poles running from West Rutland to Burlington.
New Haven is one of several towns that have been urging the PSB to deny, or at least dramatically curtail, the VELCO project, on grounds that it would ruin the visual appeal of the countryside and potentially pose health hazards to people living in the vicinity of the more powerful transmission lines.
New Haven taxpayers last December agreed to appropriate $20,000 to fight the VELCO plan. The money has been used to pay attorney James Dumont and expert witnesses who have been testifying on behalf of New Haven during a series of PSB hearings.
On Monday, local opponents of the VELCO plan asked for an additional $15,000. They cited the unforeseen length of the project review as a reason for the need for more cash.
"The original date for conclusion of the (PSB) hearing was in May 2004," said resident Kathleen Ready, a member of a grassroots group called Voices for Sensible Energy Solutions that is opposing the VELCO project. "We don't know what the outcome of the process will be. We expect we will need continued representation."
Resident Sansea Sparling, another member of the Voices group, noted that project opponents are not asking New Haven taxpayers alone to foot the legal bills. She said Voices has thus far raised $46,305 toward the effort, money that has come in through grants, fund raisers and private donations from as far away as Florida.
"We are asking the town to share in some of the costs," Sparling said. "We think that is appropriate."
Appropriate because, Sparling said, everyone in New Haven benefits from challenging VELCO.
"This is not an effort that is for our own backyards," Sparling said. "This is for our town."
Sparling said that $61,456 has thus far been spent on behalf of New Haven in the VELCO case. Of that sum, $44,172 has been paid to Dumont, with the balance being paid to expert witnesses who have testified for the town.
Still, there remains $28,252 in unpaid bills, according to Sparling. Roughly $17,700 of that amount is money owed to Dumont. The remainder, according to Sparling, can be classified as "administrative costs" -- primarily associated with copying fees and postage for the reams of legal correspondence that must be sent to all parties involved in the VELCO case.
Ready and Sparling said the additional $15,000 from the town will go toward paying down the $28,252 debt. Any additional request for town support would be sought through another special meeting, they said.
Sparling believes New Haven has gotten good value for the dollars it has spent on the case. Dumont and the town's witnesses have questioned the need for the VELCO project. They've also argued that any PSB approval should include stipulations that transmission lines be buried at key locations (such as where it crosses roads), and that VELCO be forced to move its substation away from its present location off Town Hill Road. The company wants to substantially expand its New Haven substation.
"It's fair to see the PSB is very interested in that," Dumont said, of the notion of relocating the New Haven substation.
New Haven is not the only town spending money to contest the VELCO project. The towns of Shelburne, Charlotte, Vergennes and Ferrisburgh -- all of which lie along the project route -- have spent a combined total of more than $313,000 for legal fees and expert witnesses.
VELCO has thus far spent "several million dollars" on permitting and legal fees related to the Northwest Reliability Project, according to company spokesman David Mace.
Monday's meeting made it clear that not all New Haven residents are pleased with the way the town is waging its fight against VELCO.
Selectman Burt Allen said he was disappointed that project opponents had asked for $15,000 in town funds, up from the $10,000 they had originally targeted.
Resident Jerry Smiley, a member of a special citizens committee that's been researching strategies to minimize the VELCO project's impacts on New Haven, said he was concerned about the mounting legal fees.
"An incredible amount of money has been spent... " Smiley said, adding he was concerned about "how much more will be spent."
After roughly 90 minutes of discussion, residents voted 54-12 in favor of spending the $15,000.
The PSB is due to make its decision on the VELCO project in mid-January. The board recently denied a request by Dumont to delay the decision for at least five more months.
In other action at Monday's meeting, residents unanimously agreed to spend $65,000 for a new utility vehicle for the New Haven Volunteer Fire Department. That money is currently available in a municipal fire truck fund.