Vernon pushes ahead with vote on possible gas plant

Despite uncertainty, town plans to push ahead with balloting on Town Meeting Day

VERNON — Facing what's been called “one of the most important decisions made in town for years,” Vernon residents are divided on how to proceed with the debate over hosting a 600 megawatt, gas-fired power plant.

Some, like resident Bronna Zlochiver, are strongly urging officials to “go slow on this, because we need to answer all the questions that were asked. And I know I have a zillion more.”

Others, like Vernon Planning Commission Vice Chairwoman Janet Rasmussen, believe that “time is of the essence” and too much delay will leave the town out of the power-plant mix entirely.

After much discussion, the sense of urgency seems to be winning out: Vernon Planning Commission agreed on Dec. 9 to push forward with a February forum and a March 1 vote. While that vote is taking a different format than originally discussed, the point is still to get a “yes” or “no” consensus on hosting a gas plant.

“We can't keep doing this (debate) for 20 years. If there's going to be a gas plant, we've got to start moving,” Planning Commission member Patty O'Donnell said. “I certainly think that the townspeople have the right and should make a decision on it. But eventually, you've got to make a decision.”

In a quest to bring new jobs and tax revenue to town after the December 2014 closure of Vermont Yankee, the planning commission has been working with a potential gas-plant developer – Winhall resident Don Campbell, along with partner Hervey Scudder of Brattleboro.

The idea is to tie a Vernon plant into the proposed – but not yet approved – Kinder Morgan Northeast Energy Direct pipeline, which would pass through northwestern Massachusetts as it carries natural gas from the shale fields of Pennsylvania to the New England market.

Officials say a 7-mile pipeline spur could reach a Vernon plant, which would be located on a still-undisclosed site somewhere near Vermont Yankee's switchyard.

A Nov. 10 public forum brought more details of the proposal as well as many questions about safety, siting, environmental impacts, and other issues. Campbell has said he wants general support from the town before finalizing plans and seeking state and federal permitting for the project, so planning commission members have set about researching the public's questions while also trying to schedule a townwide referendum.

Some say it's all happening too fast, though.

“I don't think there's enough information to say, personally for me, whether I support it or whether I wouldn't,” resident Heather Frost told Vernon Selectboard members at a Dec. 7 meeting. “I would rather have (a referendum) state whether we want the planning board to continue the investigation.”

Rather than a yes or no vote, Zlochiver wondered whether the town planning commission might solicit more questions from the public. She also asked for an organized field trip to an operating gas plant, and she recommended waiting to make a decision on a plant proposal until after completion of a community visioning process through the Vermont Council on Rural Development.

That process might happen early next year.

“I think it's time that we rebuild our sense of community, and I'm afraid that this will polarize us,” Zlochiver said.

Others worry that a lack of more specifics about the project will lead some to vote against it simply on principle. “That's my concern – that, if people aren't fully satisfied with the information yet, they won't support it,” Selectboard member Emily Vergobbe said.

Campbell, though, has warned town officials that extending the debate past town meeting could put Vernon at a disadvantage in seeking a spur from the Kinder Morgan pipeline and a connection to the regional power grid. And it is clear that the planning commission is feeling that pressure.

“My fear is just that we keep on kicking the can down the road,” Rasmussen said. “By the time everybody is fully satisfied ... it will be too late.”

Officials also rejected the idea of having multiple town votes, with the first geared simply toward determining support for further investigation of the plant concept.

Saying there won't be time for a second vote, planning commission member Jeff Dunklee – who also serves on the Selectboard – said he believes that some who oppose the project “would prefer to just run the clock out on it.”

So the planning commission made several decisions during their Dec 9 meeting.

First, the members tentatively scheduled a second gas plant public forum on Feb. 3, with a snow date of Feb. 10. Details of the forum will go out on a flier sent to residents in January. The session “wouldn't be so much a presentation as a discussion of the issues,” commission Chairman Bob Spencer said.

Second, planning commission members agreed that a March 1 vote will be held – though it won't be within the normal confines of Town Meeting Day voting.

After researching the requirements of a referendum via Australian Ballot, town officials concluded that they don't have time to properly organize and warn a March 1 referendum because a prior, special town meeting would be required with its own warning period.

And an alternate proposal – simply sending out the gas-plant question via mail, like a survey – was rejected as too informal and unreliable.

Instead, after consulting with the Vermont Secretary of State's office, commission members now expect to set up a separate polling station near – but separate from – the town's voting booths.

The station would be manned by planning commission members, with the results tabulated separately from official Town Meeting Day votes.

“I like the idea of it being done at the polling station,” Spencer said. “It controls it. You get the people who are interested and concerned about the town enough to vote.”

Lastly, and after much debate, the commission settled on simple language for voters to consider: “Do you support a gas-fired electric generation plant being located in Vernon.” There was talk of including general information about siting or other terms such as “development” or “further investigation,” but officials decided to keep it simple.

Anything beyond the basic question is a matter of “semantics,” O'Donnell said, while acknowledging that some won't be happy with the referendum's wording.

“I want people in Vernon to have the opportunity to have their voices heard,” O'Donnell said. “Whether they want it or they don't want it – I think we need to know that.”

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