Surrounded by the Green Mountain National Forest, the residents of Manchester, Vermont value both the scenic and touristic importance of the area’s mountains and the importance of renewable energy. A proposal by Endless Energy Corporation to build a wind farm on nearby Little Equinox Mountain sparked controversy over which should take precedence, scenic landscapes or sustainable energy.
Vermont, like other states, is considering new ways to support renewable energy production, an often contentious issue that necessitates balancing the protection of scenic and natural resources, with economics, and market demands. In this case, the proposed wind facility would provide sustainable energy for a broad region, yet the burdens of the facility would fall almost entirely on a single community. Most Manchester community members recognized the broad benefits of wind power, but this did not outweigh their concerns about potential local impacts.
Although the decision to implement the project ultimately rested with the state's Public Service Board, the town government felt citizens should play a key role in informing local land use decisions. Working with a team of representatives from the Orton Family Foundation, the Town and the Village of Manchester, Vermont, CBI helped design and implement a community engagement process to explore the local interests and concerns regarding the proposed project.
Over a period of four months, CBI guided the Orton Family Foundation team through an intense planning, issues exploration, and public outreach process called The Wind Forum. The Forum kicked-off with a series of four public meetings, which shared information on topics related to the proposal site planning, ecology, energy economics, and aesthetics. CBI gathered existing background research on various aspects of wind siting impacts for the process. CBI then facilitated a public priority-setting workshop that identified specific issues for further public discussion.
The process culminated in a day-long facilitated Wind Summit, which included presentations from a panel of experts, and state and local officials; facilitated group conversations about the proposed wind farm; visualization exercises using CommunityViz, a dynamic mapping landscape visualization technology; and real-time polling using keypads. Over 90 citizens participated in the Wind Summit. CBI also conducted a final process evaluation for the Orton Family Foundation.
The Wind Forum process engaged hundreds of citizens in discussions and informed town government officials of their opinions and concerns. The Forum also piloted new approaches that support informed, equitable, and collaborative decision-making. The core planning group, made up of stakeholders with differing perspectives, was essential in managing occasional tensions. Holding multiple Forum meetings allowed the process to address and adapt to new issues as they occurred. The use of keypad polling at the Wind Summit allowed participants to anonymously express nuanced opinions and concerns that are often very difficult to obtain in a traditional public meeting environment. The Forum also highlighted the need for more before-and-after studies on U.S. wind projects that investigate, for instance, how wind facilities affect property values and tourism.
At the conclusion of the process, participants felt better informed and the civility of public debate had improved. Keypad polling results revealed that 86% of Forum attendees felt the process had helped them become more informed about the issues and 79% felt the information provided was fair, credible, and balanced.