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The Commons

Windham makes its case for local decision-making on wind power

Final public comments in Montpelier on Dec. 19

Transcripts and schedules are available online.

Originally published in The Commons issue #182 (Wednesday, December 12, 2012).

WINDHAM—A board governing the regulatory process for large-scale wind power installations has been meeting in Montpelier for the past six weeks in a process that has drawn criticism for either its caution or its haste, depending on one’s view of large-scale wind-power installations.

A fifth and final information meeting of the five-member Vermont Energy Generation Policy Siting Commission (VEGPSC) will take place in Montpelier on Dec. 19.

An executive order by Gov. Peter Shumlin on Oct. 2 established the VEGPSC to examine the regulatory and permitting process for Section 248 in relation to Act 250, which governs the regulatory process for the Vermont Public Service Board (PSB).

Developers and utilities want to see the process streamlined. At the same time, residents in towns where wind projects have been proposed want to see a more considered approach without haste.

The town of Windham has a particular interest in the findings of this commission, as town officials are awaiting the PSB decision for an Act 246 permit for Atlantic Wind LLC, a subsidiary of the international commercial wind developer Iberdrola, to erect three meteorological test towers (MET) atop Burt Hill.

Meadowsend Timberlands Limited, a New Hampshire, family-owned business with property in Vermont, New Hampshire, and Maine, has proposed building the MET towers on on a 5,000-acre tract in Grafton and Windham.

Two of the towers are sited in Windham, which has a clear prohibition of “commercial wind development” in its town plan, last revised in 2008.

The town of Grafton, by contrast, has voiced no official support or opposition to the wind project, and does not have any provisions in its town plan for commercial wind development.

However, Friends of Grafton’s Heritage, a group headed by Liisa Kissel, has gained the signatures of 5 percent of registered voters required to propose a change to the town plan to address this omission.

The group is working on the language of that change to put before the town planning and development commission.

Windham has argued to the PSB that the town should have sovereignty to decide whether the Atlantic Wind project is compatible with the existing town plan.

The Vermont Department of Public Service supports the town’s right and has instructed the PSB to abide by the town plan and reject the Atlantic Wind project.

In a letter from DPS dated Oct. 9, to the PSB board, the DPS recommendation stated, “The Board is required to give due consideration to the Town Plan with regard to the orderly development of the region [Section] 24S criterion.”

“The Board should treat the provisions prohibiting the construction of MET towers both within the Forest Resource Districts and within the town generally as dispositive,” the letter continued.

Shumlin’s spokesperson, Susan Allen, said that “the governor has been very clear that he does not support a wind project in a community that has made clear its opposition to such a facility.”

At the last VEGPSC meeting on Dec. 6, several participants from Windham presented their perspectives.

Heath Boyer was asked to present Windham’s comments to the commission because of his background as a commissioner to the Windham Regional Commission, where he sat on the energy and project review committees.

“Windham has chosen to comment today because we are dealing with the issue of industrial-scale wind for the second time since 2005,” Boyer explained to the commission.

“We share the concerns of many towns regarding the absence of clear, strict and relevant siting guidelines,” Boyer said. “Protection of lands, environmental and cultural resources are at the heart of most town plans, so their importance cannot be overstated.”

“In many ways, these issues are the core of what Vermont means to its citizens and to its visitors.”

Boyer told the commission that the process of Act 246, which governs the application for the meteorological test towers, “while challenging for us, has been orderly and reasonable.”

Montpelier Attorney Gerald Terrant went before the commission the same day because of his background as a former Commissioner of Public Service with an extensive background in renewable energy law.

Tarrant told the commission, “The PSB has done a good job given the impossibility of the tasks,” given the complexity of applicants and their business transactions.

“The economic benefits to the state and ratepayers have been replaced with more difficult-to-address carbon emissions benefit,” Tarrant said.

“We have become a marketplace for developers to use our state and its natural resources largely for out-of-state purposes,” he added. “The board has to deal with a difficult issue while at the same time being directed to approve more ‘alternative energy’ projects.”

Boyer said that in the proceedings, “there is a very deep gulf between the people, and those that want to make this [process] simpler and quicker, to consolidate [the steps] and slam the doors.”

Speaking of commercial interests, Boyer said that “the people who are saying we just need to slow down and have a moment of sanity [residents and towns] are the other end of the stick [and] there is a natural tension” between the two interests.”

At the Nov. 30 meeting, he said, “the biggest developers of these projects” were heard, as were representatives from Green Mountain Power.

“They all find the process a little too laborious. It takes too long,” Boyer noted. “They want to develop ... in a hurry because time is money.”

“The sooner they get them up and spinning, the sooner the applicants start making money,” he said.

But Boyer felt that the commission board was very interested and engaged in listening to everyone who came before them, and he said he has “confidence [in the] people involved. I think they really want to do the right thing there.”

Windham Selectboard Chair Mary Boyer said what she heard was “enormously useful, not only for the participants but for all the people in the audience.”

“To have an opportunity to hear how this is viewed by other stakeholders [was] in that regard enlightening for everyone who has been there,” Boyer said. “The conversation has been elevated to a more important context [on] the issue of town sovereignty and the appropriateness of our choice about renewables.”

“Vermont needs to pick the [renewable energy resources] that are appropriate in the context of our other resources,” she said.

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