Massachusetts lawmakers—who aren’t generally regarded as models of efficiency—have passed a bill that could streamline the plodding bureaucracy of wind farm permitting. The Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, which is backed by Gov. Deval Patrick and several environmental groups, earned Senate approval in February and passed in the House two weeks ago.
The act fast-tracks the development of wind power facilities, limiting the local approval process to 120 days before proposals are sent to the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board for final approval. Currently, potential farms must dare to jump through an obstacle course of municipal hoops (zoning boards, local conservation commissions, planning boards), and multiple judicial appeals often tie up wind projects for years. The act would consolidate local permitting to one board that embodies all these concerns.
Some critics have charged that the bill bends over backwards for wind energy developers and bellyflops when it comes to the communities where they want to build. Others argue it cuts down on the red tape of current procedures that make it too hard to develop wind power facilities.
Ian Bowles, the Patrick administration’s secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs (EEA) says he’s “pleased” with the legislation’s progress.”The bill levels the playing field for renewable wind energy, providing clear and predictable siting standards that are as environmentally protective as state law, allowing one-stop permitting at both the state and local levels to ensure that all issues are heard and preventing NIMBY opponents from tying up in the courts worthy projects that have local support,” Bowles says.
But Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association (MMA), isn’t so sure. “There should be no cookie-cutter approach to siting,” he says. Yet the act’s earned a tentative endorsement from the MMA. “The legislation overall does offer protections for the municipal government authority involved in the siting of wind facilities,” Beckwith says.
The bill could flush proposals that have been clogged for years. No, not on the infamously drawn-out Cape Wind project—that involves offshore wind turbines on a national seashore, and requires federal approval. But the landlocked Berkshire Wind, a project on the ridgeline of the Brodie Mountain ski area in the Berkshires that has been quietly stalled for a decade now, would benefit from the reform.
Narain Schroeder, the director of land conservation for the Berkshire Natural Resources Council, isn’t too thrilled about that. He opposes the bill, saying that local control is an issue, but his biggest concern is that the “standards” set by an EEA advisory group will trump existing environmental law, and that could create wiggle room where developers could worm in violations. “A lot remains to be seen [about] how the standards are adhered to or applied,” he says.
Environmental groups like the Conservation Law Foundation say the act is an important step toward meeting the state’s clean energy goals, which have been vaulted to Olympian heights by measures like 2008′s Global Warming Solutions Act. But Schroeder argues the state’s energy demand is the real problem. “We’re talking about a very small fraction of the energy that the Commonwealth uses,” he explains. “We don’t think that wind turbines on these ridgelines are going to successfully combat climate change. We’ve got to focus on conservation and reducing our consumption.”
With the recent House vote and the governor’s support, the bill has a strong wind in its … er, turbine. Secretary Bowles says that he is “hopeful that Gov. Patrick will soon have the opportunity to sign it into law.”
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