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Energy siting bill disappoints town officials

Officials say towns deserve more of a voice in where energy projects go; one state rep. calls bill a compromise and ‘good first effort’

WINDHAM—Town officials have become familiar faces in the Statehouse, where they’ve argued repeatedly that municipalities like theirs should have a bigger role in deciding where energy projects are built.

But now that both chambers of the Legislature have approved a bill addressing that issue, Selectboard Chair Frank Seawright is less than impressed.

Seawright and his wife, anti-turbine activist Nancy Tips, say S.230 doesn’t go far enough in ensuring that local concerns are taken seriously. And they aren’t convinced that further planning and studies called for in the bill will make much of a difference at the local level.

“How many hoops should a community have to jump through?” Tips asked.

To which Seawright added, “and for how long a time?”

State goal: encourage renewable energy

Vermont’s official goal is to obtain 90 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2050. State officials have been encouraging development of renewable generation such as solar and wind, touting the environmental benefits as well as the economic upside.

There has been increasing friction, however, with those who worry about the impacts of rapid, large-scale renewable energy development on the environment and on homeowners.

S.230, approved on the final day of the 2016 legislative session, attempts to address some of those concerns. Dubbed the “Energy Development Improvement Act,” one of its goals is “identifying areas suitable for renewable energy generation.”

The bill is designed to give local officials more say in determining those areas. Via a complex and still-evolving process, the state will be able to bestow a “determination of energy compliance” on regional and town plans that delineates where renewable-energy projects should and should not go.

Plans that receive that determination then will get “substantial deference” when the state Public Service Board is considering an energy project.

State Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon, served on a conference committee that finalized S.230 as the session ended earlier this month. He said the bill is a compromise, but he believes that giving town and regional plans “substantial deference” is an improvement in the state’s energy-permitting process.

“It took a lot of work to get to that point,” Hebert said. He added that, currently, “the Public Service Board doesn’t have to do much more than acknowledge that [a town] has an energy plan.”

Windham town plan bans turbines

It’s a big issue in Windham, where the town plan’s in-depth energy section bans large wind turbines “based on the unique topography and settlement patterns of our town, our 10 years of research and knowledge and the support of the majority of our residents and property owners.”

Wind-power developer Iberdrola Renewables has proposed building the state’s largest turbine site in Windham and Grafton. The project, expected to be the subject of votes in both towns later this year, has spurred intense debate as proponents and opponents debate the potential environmental and financial impacts.

Twenty of the 28 windmills planned at Stiles Brook Forest would be in Windham. Given that there already has been tension between Windham’s municipal plan and state regulators, the question is whether S.230 will allow the town’s plan to override Iberdrola’s plans.

The answer, Seawright and Tips say, is probably not.

For one thing, the “substantial deference” standard for local concerns is not absolute: S.230 says a local land policy will apply “unless there is a clear and convincing demonstration that other factors affecting the general good of the state outweigh” the town or regional plan.

Additionally, Seawright and Tips don’t believe that the state’s renewable-energy goals are realistic or good for Vermont’s environment. But it’s clear that those goals must play a role in local planning if municipal and regional officials hope to gain a determination of energy compliance from the state.

“Basically, everything tumbles from [the state’s goals], and there’s no way out. It’s just plain crazy,” said Tips, a member of Friends of Windham, which opposes the Stiles Brook project.

She dubs S.230 “a total nightmare.” Seawright takes a slightly softer stance, believing that the bill could give the town plan more authority in renewable energy development — though it’s unclear how much.

“There has to be a chance,” he said. “I just don’t think it’s as great as lots of us would hope for.”

Sound and the fury

S.230 also attempts to address a specific concern that’s been cited in the Stiles Brook wind debate: How much sound can large turbines generate?

On or before July 1, 2017, the bill says, the state Public Service Board must develop rules governing sound emanating from wind generation facilities. That includes uniform sound standards as well as “a methodology for determining sound levels and measurement locations for each such facility on a case-by-case basis.”

Tips still sees a battle ahead on that front. “We’re going to now have to go and struggle for every decibel in their sound standards,” she said.

Even with the passage of S.230, Seawright isn’t sure that Windham’s battles have led to much change at the state level. But he believes more state officials are hearing from residents who are concerned about renewable energy permitting.

“I do think that they are clearly aware by now that the rivets are starting to pop,” Seawright said. “People are really unhappy about this [...] and people are better able to analyze the situation.”

That’s a point not lost on Hebert, who is pledging further attention to the issue if he is re-elected.

Even as a member of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee and S.230’s conference committee, Hebert said the siting bill didn’t include everything he wanted: He would have preferred to give towns outright veto power on an energy project.

“It’s a good first step,” Hebert said. “We need some more work to be done.”

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Originally published in The Commons issue #358 (Wednesday, May 25, 2016). This story appeared on page A1.

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