Economists and peace activists have long pointed out that the true cost of oil-based energy is not adequately accounted for or paid by us consumers: the pollution it generates, the treatment for diseases it necessitates, the environmental damage that needs to be ameliorated, and the military presence we provide in order to ensure our oil supplies all have costs that are not on our utility bills. Forcing oil, coal and nuclear energy providers to internalize the costs had proven almost impossible due to their strong lobbyist presence in Washington, D.C. and in state capitols. Raising taxes on consumers so that government has the means to deal with the problems these energy sources provide is also a political non-starter. As a nation, our best hope to move toward renewable energy continues to be the efforts of individuals, which befits a country built on so much personal initiative and entrepreneurship.
Addison County is brimming with innovators, from ACORN Energy Co-op which buys wood pellets in bulk for its members and offers member discounts on solar hot-water heating systems, to the 350.org nation-wide lobbying and consciousness-raising group with its roots in Middlebury. There is a no-idling ordinance in Middlebury, and Jeremiah Parker’s Green Woods Village, a group of energy efficient homes clustered near downtown Shoreham. In 2002, the entire town of Middlebury conducted an energy audit and created two campaigns to reduce its carbon footprint, both as a municipality and by individual homeowners and drivers. Middlebury was just awarded a Button-Up Middlebury grant from the state that is actually countywide as a result of these efforts. Laura Asermily and Elizabeth Golden have been instrumental in these local efforts, working hand-in-hand with Efficiency Vermont and the Vermont State Way to Go campaign on alternative modes of transportation. All of these efforts, combined with Middlebury College’s biomass energy plant and goal to be carbon neutral put Addison County on the cutting edge, not just in Vermont but nationally.
Here in Brandon, on the other hand, we are struggling in the very beginning stages of energy consumption awareness and individual carbon footprint reduction. Given the comparative economic situation in Brandon, this is not surprising: Many individuals here do not have the capital to invest in conservation measures in their homes. Brandon’s median per capita income in the 2000 census was almost $2,500 less than Middlebury’s; the average value of a home was $35,800 less. For many residents, winterizing means putting blue board around the foundation, or even more inexpensively, bagging up fall leaves for the same purpose. Screens and windows are covered with plastic sheeting because residents cannot afford to replace their windows; tarps are put over roofs. Our local elementary school has done an excellent job retrofitting for efficiency, but both the town government and individual citizens are much more conflicted about moving toward alternative energy. In the Town Plan meetings I attended, there was tremendous concern about people building tall windmills, and now a family in the Mt. Pleasant development is facing stiff resistance from their neighbors about installing one 8-panel solar electricity generator on their property.
It is this last controversy that I, a born-and-bred New Jersey girl who moved to Vermont 13 years ago, find the most puzzling. The Mt. Pleasant development was built when the owners of the farm agreed to sell it, but with covenants built into the deeds. Most of these were designed, it seems, to keep out poorer residents: Only single-family homes were allowed, and no clothes lines were to be visible from the road. The large building lots also guaranteed that only those who could afford more in property taxes would be living “on the hill.” But there are also parts of the covenant designed to “preserve the rural character” of the development, and this is where I am most bemused. All utility lines were buried underground, and no power lines for “the transmission of power” were to be allowed. The neighbors in opposition to the installation of the solar panel feel that it would violate this last part of the covenant and destroy the rural character of the entire Mt. Pleasant development. But as I walk (or drive — there are no sidewalks to encourage walking or promote bike riding, and many of the roads there are unpaved) past one ranch house after another through a relatively treeless landscape with immaculately groomed lawns, the Mt. Pleasant neighborhood looks like it could be any recently developed area in my home state. There’s nothing rural about it: It’s suburban, covenants and all.
Of all places in Brandon, Mt. Pleasant seems the most logical to use alternative energy. The houses are newer, the lots generally bigger and treeless, with better elevation to catch both solar and wind power. Moreover, residents’ incomes are probably on average higher, so they would be most likely to have the money to invest in alternative energy technology. Between that and the Vermont ethic of self-sufficiency, not to mention generally minding one’s own business, I was surprised that neighbors opposed the project at all, let alone allowed talk to stray into the area of “legal action.” More surprising still was the fear that allowing one household to install a solar panel would reduce property values for all the other houses in the area, particularly the houses a person would have to get to by driving past this lot. With all of the individual initiative and capital being expended on alternative energy and conservation just north of us in Addison County, it seems to me that newcomers to Brandon would pay more to have an energy-efficient house in the future, and that setting a model for an appropriate way to capture solar and wind power in the Mt. Pleasant suburb of Brandon would actually increase home values down the road as new residents would want be able to install this technology.
Maybe as a former urbanite, I am more accustomed to people expressing their individuality by the way they paint their homes, the sculpture on their lawns, their landscaping. And as a refugee from the suburbs, I am more put off by those aspects of suburban living that divide people rather than bring them together. In this case, I see that fear is forcing people to look backward, not forward, and that, as it so often does, fear is driving people apart rather than creating an environment of mutual tolerance and acceptance. And fear is so much of what creates suburbs in the first place — in New Jersey, and here in Brandon.
Rebecca Reimers is a native of the New York City suburb of Teaneck, N.J., and a refugee of Westchester, N.Y. She has been living in Vermont for more than 13 years, in New Haven, Burlington, Middlebury and now in Brandon. She is a retired high school social studies teacher raising her three young sons with her husband, a native of the Boston area. Her thoughts on her community, and the surrounding towns of Leicester, Goshen and Forestdale, appear in "View from the Borderland," an online feature at the Addison Independent Web site.