New Haven to ask voters for money in VELCO project battle


NEW HAVEN -- New Haven voters on Nov. 29 will be asked to spend an additional $15,000 on legal expenses in the community's ongoing battle to influence a major proposal to upgrade power transmission lines through town.

It was in December of 2003 that residents voted 96-21, at a special town meeting, to spend up to $20,000 to pay a lawyer, and expert witnesses, to represent New Haven's interests at the state's Public Service Board (PSB) review of the Vermont Electric Power Co.'s (VELCO) "Northwest Reliability Project." It's a $128 million project that calls for a substantial upgrade in VELCO power line that runs from West Rutland to Burlington. The project would bisect several Addison County towns, including Middlebury, Leicester, New Haven, Vergennes and Ferrisburgh.

Some communities within the project path have expressed concerns about how the more powerful lines on taller utility poles could affect public health and the beauty of the rural countryside. New Haven has an added concern about the project: A proposed multi-million expansion of VELCO's Town Hill Road substation.

New Haven, several months ago, appointed a citizens committee to research strategies to minimize the VELCO project's impacts on the town. Another citizens group -- Voices for Sensible Energy Solutions -- also formed to promote public awareness about VELCO's plan and to raise money to fight it.

A portion of the $20,000 approved last December has been used to pay attorney James Dumont. Dumont, along with expert witnesses, last week participated in a new round of PSB hearings on the VELCO project. The PSB is scheduled to rule in January on whether to give VELCO a green light to move forward with its project.

Dumont is optimistic the PSB is listening to New Haven's concerns.

Specifically, he believes the board has been sold on the notion of moving the site of the expanded VELCO substation back a few hundred feet from its present location. The new location would be shielded by trees and the lay of the land, according to Dumont.

"It would be an enormous eyesore in this scenic part of Addison County," Dumont said of VELCO's plan to expand the substation at its present site.

Advocates for New Haven have also urged the PSB to require VELCO to either bury their transmission lines as they cross Route 17 in town, or move the crossing to a less obtrusive spot, closer to Route 7.

"I think we have put forward a real strong argument for moving (the crossing)," Dumont said.

In a broader sense, Dumont has been asking the PSB to consider whether the Northwest Reliability project is even needed.

"There is a lot of evidence that (energy) conservation will make this project unnecessary," Dumont said.

VELCO officials have said the project will be essential in preventing future blackouts, particularly during peak summer months.

The $20,000 voted by New Haven residents last December has been exhausted. Voices for Sensible Energy Solutions had raised another $70,000 from various sources to apply to New Haven's VELCO fund. Some of that money has helped pay Dumont, while a portion of its has been used to contest the project on other fronts.

Officials are hoping New Haven residents on Nov. 29 will authorize another $15,000 to carry on the fight.

Sansea Sparling, a member of Voices For Sensible Energy Solutions, said $9,259 of the $15,000 would be used to pay for labor, printing and mailing costs associated with the legal documents New Haven has to file throughout the PSB review of VELCO's plan. Any time New Haven files a legal document, or responds to one, it has to send copies to each of the more than 30 parties that can intervene in the case. That adds up over time, she noted.

The balance of the $15,000 would be used toward legal fees.

"We are now in a situation of having a debt with Jim (Dumont)," Sparling said.

Dumont acknowledged that his hours have exceeded his compensation.

"The reality is, I will keep working on this case whether I get paid for it or not," Dumont said, adding it would be "a nice gesture" if residents approved the additional $15,000, particularly because there is no way to know how long the proceedings will continue.

New Haven Selectman Larry Buck said the Nov. 29 meeting will give residents a chance to get an update on progress made by the mitigation committee and Dumont, and decide whether to allot more money toward legal fees.

"We all knew it was going to cost more than what we had funded" for legal expenses, Buck said.

The second article on the Nov. 29 warning asks residents if they want to spend $65,000 for a replacement utility vehicle for the New Haven Volunteer Fire Department. That money is currently available in a municipal fire truck fund.

"We want people to voice their opinions, and let them know what we're spending the money on," Buck said.