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Hurdles remain for Vernon gas plant proposal

Town’s involvement will have to happen via Vermont’s regulatory process

VERNON—In a town with no zoning, the potential developers of a 600-megawatt, gas-fired power plant wouldn’t even need a building permit to start work here.

But that doesn’t mean town officials intend to step away from the proposed project.

While Vernon voters gave clear support to a theoretical gas plant on March 1, the project still must pass through multiple layers of state and federal permitting before becoming reality.

Vernon Planning Commission members say they expect to stay involved every step of the way, and they’re discussing the idea of enlisting outside, expert help to ensure the town is not left out.

“I think our position is discovery and education,” commission member Madeline Arms said at a meeting March 9. “That is, I think, a fundamental part of the process—not letting something get by us that’s going to hit us in the back of the head later on.”

With the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant having shut down at the end of 2014, Vernon officials have been discussing a gas plant as one way to bring jobs, tax revenue and power generation back to town.

For more than a year, the Planning Commission had frequent meetings with two men pitching the project—Don Campbell, a Winhall resident with a background in utility investment, and Hervey Scudder of Brattleboro.

The idea is to feed a Vernon plant via a 7-mile spur from Kinder Morgan’s proposed Northeast Energy Direct natural gas pipeline, which would pass through northern Massachusetts. The plant also could use heavy-duty electrical infrastructure left behind by Vermont Yankee.

Campbell has said he is working to assemble a development team and to secure land—possibly a portion of a dairy farm just north of Vermont Yankee—for the project.

And Vernon residents gave a ringing endorsement to those efforts in a non-binding referendum held March 1, voting 677-153 in support of the town hosting a gas plant.

Eight days after the referendum, Planning Commission members got together to ask an important question: What happens now?

“I don’t think we have all the time in the world, so to speak, to figure out what we’re going to do next,” said Janet Rasmussen, the commission’s vice chairwoman.

To some extent, the town’s role will be much less prominent going forward. Vernon has no land-use regulations, so town officials won’t have any direct control over a gas plant project.

“We can recommend, and we can advise,” commission member Martin Langeveld said. “That’s about all we can do.”

However, all aspects of the project—if it progresses—will be subject to various levels of state and federal scrutiny. That starts with Kinder Morgan’s controversial pipeline, which has not yet been approved by the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.

If the pipeline project moves forward, Vernon gas plant developers would need to secure support from Kinder Morgan and from ISO New England, which operates the regional power grid.

At the state level, plant developers would pursue a certificate of public good via the Vermont Public Service Board’s Section 248 process for energy facilities. Section 248 incorporates environmental criteria from the state’s Act 250 land-use regulations, and it also includes considerations such as need, system reliability and economic benefits.

Towns can’t nix a project via Section 248, but there are opportunities for local officials and residents to weigh in.

That also is true for other steps in the process. Vernon Planning Commission members have been in touch with Trey Martin, deputy secretary of the state Agency of Natural Resources, to get a better handle on what lies ahead.

Martin characterized that discussion as “informal,” noting that “I obviously caveated everything with, we haven’t seen a proposal yet.”

Nonetheless, he expects that a gas plant would need an air-quality permit via his agency. That would afford “a lot of opportunity for public participation,” Martin said.

He also said a gas plant—and the associated pipeline spur—could be subject to stormwater, wetland-impact, and groundwater-protection permits, among others.

Martin said he recommended that Vernon officials seek their own advisers in order to get a better handle on the project. At their March 9 meeting, Planning Commission members decided to look into procuring legal and and technical expertise.

“The question is, what kind of consultant do we think we need?” Langeveld said. “What can we do on our own, and what do we need someone to do for us?”

Planning Commission members also acknowledged that they likely won’t be working as closely with Campbell, as he’s not in a position to be an independent adviser to the town. “His interest is in developing the deal—putting the deal together, whatever it is,” Langeveld said.

In addition to the town and the state, Windham Regional Commission may be a player in gas plant development. But the Brattleboro-based commission has not yet stepped into the fray.

“Thus far, we’ve had no significant discussion within the commission about a possible gas plant,” Executive Director Chris Campany said. “And it’s likely we won’t until a specific application is being developed to go through the Section 248 certificate of public good process.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #348 (Wednesday, March 16, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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