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Voters approve Harwood wood chip heating facility

November 9, 2006 

By Erin Post

Voters overwhelmingly approved construction of a wood chip heating facility at Harwood Union High School.

The vote on the November 7 ballot initiative-with 4,282 residents in favor and 1,931 opposed-allows the school to sell $1.68 million in bonds to fund the project, while taking advantage of a state program that should make the impact on local taxpayers negligible.

For projects approved by December 31, the Vermont Department of Education contributes up to 90 percent of the cost to construct wood chip boilers.

After that date the reimbursement rate falls to 75 percent.

"We are very pleased with the outcome of the vote," said Harwood Principal Duane Pierson, Wednesday. "The wood chip facility is a sustainable, cost-effective and environmentally responsible way to heat our school."

With construction of the facility at Harwood expected to cost roughly $1.68 million, the school stands to recoup about $1.51 million from the state. The remaining 10 percent of the cost, about $168,000, would be the school's responsibility.

Officials have said this amount could be paid off within a few years by using the savings realized from switching from fuel oil to wood chips, estimated to be about $50,000 annually.

Taxpayers should see no net impact on the tax rate as a result of the project, officials have said.

Attendance at a November 1 public hearing on the project was dismal; just one resident showed up to ask questions and voice support.

After quizzing the board about the homework they had done on the cost and benefits of the facility, Waitsfield resident Leo Laferriere endorsed the project.

"These wood chip fueled heating plants offer real potential to improve the quality of forest management in the state," he said. "The project should have real advantages."

In part because wood chip heating facilities burn a renewable resource-wood, as opposed to oil-supporters tout them as good for the environment and good for the local economy.

The next step for the school is to figure out when state funding may become available, Pierson said, as they begin to plan for construction of the 1,200-square-foot facility.

The school "will probably not know the actual schedule for receiving state reimbursement until the legislature finalizes its capital construction bill, usually in April or early May," said school board chair Scott Mackey, Wednesday.

Now that voters have signed off on the project, seeking formal state approval for the project is also part of the next step.

"Once we have that approval, we will work with our Dorr and Whittier to spec out the project, bid it, and develop a project timetable," Mackey said.

Overall, he said the school board is "pleased that the voters recognized that this new heating plant will save the taxpayers significant money over the next three decades while helping Vermont's economy and reducing our dependence on imported oil."

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