March 18, 2011

Planning commission works on Town Plan alternative energy siting

Written by Lisa Loomis, The Valley Reporter,

The Waitsfield Planning Commission is working its way through draft language to update the Town Plan’s treatment of how alternative energy installations, including wind turbines, should be sited.

Planning commissioners and members of the public met this week on March 15 with professional planner Sharon Murray to consider how the new Town Plan deals with wind turbines and solar panel installations for commercial and residential projects.

Waitsfield’s current Town Plan specifically prohibits commercial wind farming on the Northfield Ridge. Planners are working on completing a yearlong revision of the Town Plan by this summer.

While the current Town Plan wording specifically prohibits commercial wind farming on the ridge, the town is interested in creating Town Plan wording that addresses not just the town’s Northfield Ridge and wind turbines but also the placement of alternative energy installations in scenic byways, on prime agricultural soils and other high-elevation ridgelines.

Per Vermont statute, alternative energy projects that feed into the grid are reviewed by the Vermont Public Service Board which does not consider local zoning ordinances. The Public Service Board must, however, heed Town Plans.

Public interest in the planning commission’s rewrite of the Town Plan has been high, particularly in light of the interest expressed by Citizens Wind last spring to explore a commercial wind farm on the Northfield Ridge.

At this week’s meeting those present went over Murray’s outlines on how to incorporate protective language in the new Town Plan. Murray provided a list of recommendations, proposed by law and ordinance provisions and a list of the town’s documented natural, historic and scenic resources.

Murray notes that among the town’s natural resources that need to be protected are steep slopes and ridgelines as well as upland headwaters and the Mad River and its tributaries. She identified prime ag and prime forestry soils as well as forests, wetlands, floodplains and wildlife habitat.

Scenic resources on the list include historic structures, traditional settlement patterns, forested slopes, ridgelines, open farmland and meadows, scenic roads, the Mad River, the night sky and others.

Specifically, Murray suggested that planners add specific policies for siting new or relocated utility corridors, add a policy regarding the installation of renewable energy facilities on town contract land or municipal and public property, incorporate minimum siting standards and incentives for energy-efficient development, including language addressing micro-hydro, and include a town policy calling for town participation in the Public Service Board hearings.

Some simple changes can be made to the existing Town Plan which will strengthen it in terms of how it will protect the town’s resources when the Public Service Board is considering siting alternative energy projects. Changes such as specifically listing scenic roads in an inventory, specifically listing scenic viewsheds that would be impacted by the installation of alternative energy projects, creating a policy for siting net metered facilities in historic districts and creating a scenic viewshed overlay district.

To further protect natural resources, planners could include specific wording to minimize encroachment of renewable energy facilities on prime ag soils and productive farmland and to avoid or minimize fragmentation of core forests and contiguous wildlife habitat by such projects.

Commissioners will consider draft Town Plan language on alternative energy siting at their next meeting on April 5.

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