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Outlook ‘bleak’ for state wind bill

A bill designed to regulate the location of wind power facilities in the state has stalled after being approved by the state House and Senate, and odds of final passage are “pretty bleak,” according to a Berkshire County legislator.

With the Senate convening in informal session once or twice every week until the next session begins in January, it could still pass, said state Sen. Benjamin B. Downing, D-Pittsfield. But it only takes one opponent to keep the bill inert until the following week.

“If the Republican minority wanted to allow it to pass, they could,” Downing said. “But the odds are pretty bleak.”

He said Republicans in the House used a procedural rule to prevent final passage of the bill during the final minutes of the formal 2010 legislative session. The maneuver essentially requires a final roll-call vote by the Senate, which is looking more unlikely.

Two different Republican state senators, Robert L. Hedlund and Michael R. Knapik, have already used the tactic to prevent a vote on the measure – most recently during an informal session last Tuesday. Using this tactic, Downing said, Republicans could prevent passage of the bill until the end of the year, effectively killing it.

The legislation was submitted by the administration of Gov. Deval Patrick, which has pushed hard for its passage as a key part of his effort to bolster the state’s renewable energy portfolio.

Opponents claim the bill would remove the ability of local communities to prevent a wind farm project in their town. Supporters contend the opposite – that local towns will have the ability to kill a project they oppose.

The proposed law would allow developers to appeal a denial at the local level to the state’s Supreme Judicial Court. Similar to a recently passed Senate bill, the House version allows a wind power proposal approved by a local board to then proceed to a single state permitting board for final approval. It also allows opponents of a project to appeal the local approval of a project in the state’s top court.

Critics of the legislation say the bill puts too much power at the state level. Supporters praise the bill for reducing red tape and time involved in permitting such projects.

Ian Bowles, Massachusetts secretary of energy and environmental affairs, has said that the bill allows a local municipality to turn down a wind project they decide wrong for the town. Legal challenges to the state’s top court would still be allowed.

And he noted the measure has an exact set of standards that would restrict development to ‘only a handful of sites’ in the Berkshires.

The House passed its bill 101-52 after two days of debate. The Senate passed a similar bill by voice vote in February.

State Reps. Daniel E. Bosley, Denis Guyer and William “Smitty” Pignatelli oppose the wind siting bill because they don’t believe it provides enough control to local communities.

The legislation is a response to the difficulties and delays wind projects have faced in the permitting process and from legal challenges.

One example often cited in the debate is the more than $100 million Hoosac Wind project, which was recently cleared to erect 20 wind turbines in the town of Florida and Monroe. The estimated cost of the project more than doubled during six years of legal challenges.

Downing expects that if Patrick is re-elected, a similar proposal will be submitted for passage during the next legislative session.

Bowles agreed.

“The Wind Energy Siting Reform Act – a top legislative priority this year – would level the playing field for wind energy projects that have local support, and we had hoped it would be on the Governor’s desk by now,” Bowles said Friday via e-mail. “Still, the bill passed both houses of the Legislature by substantial margins, and we have confidence that it will become law in due course.”