The East Bay Energy Consortium (EBEC) is playing defense now that the Internet is buzzing with mostly negative commentary about its proposed wind turbine project.
At its monthly meeting on May 7, EBEC members expressed strong reaction to blogs, chats and online comments about the use of eminent domain in legislation (pdf) to establish it as a private/public state agency.
The online forum Patch, in particular, seemed to exasperate EBEC members, who represent the nine communities in the partnership, from East Providence to Newport to Little Compton.
Members suggested that the heated rhetoric may only be caused by a small, outspoken group of opponents simply stirring up controversy on the World Wide Web.
Jeanne Boyle, EBEC’s East Providence representative, urged members not to get caught up in the emotional online debate. “We can’t win,” she said.
At issue is the use of eminent domain in legislation to establish EBEC as a quasi-government agency.
Critics, mainly from local, right-wing political groups such as the Tea Party, see eminent domain as a threat to capitalism through what will become an unaccountable and bloated state agency.
Consortium members says the designation allows EBEC to issue municipal bonds, thus funding the $50 million wind turbine project proposed for the Tiverton Industrial Park. EBEC members have expressed reluctance to ever use the power, but say they simply needed the authority to back the bonds. State regulations require any quasi-government agency with authority to issue bonds to retain one of three powers: eminent domain, police authority or the power to tax. Police and taxation, members agreed, were not appropriate alternatives.
EBEC member Alan Klepper said eminent domain won’t be used “to take someone’s home and knock it down and put up a turbine.”
Jeanne-Marie Napolitano, a Newport City Council member and chairwoman of EBEC, insisted that any consideration to use eminent domain would be an open and public process. “I don’t see (using eminent domain) as a reality. It’s so egregious to do it,” she said.
The Newport City Council, she said, is expected to endorse the legislation at its May 9 meeting, Napolitano said. Although Mayor Stephen Waluk was “hesitant” to be in favor of it, she noted.
Tom Moses, legal counsel for EBEC, noted that eminent domain can often be a positive tool for transference of property from a willing seller of the land.
Tiverton has yet to approve the project, as two other other private developers are also bidding for the project.
Although it may be an outspoken minority creating the controversy, some politicians are clearing responding. A member of the Warren Town Council invited the EBEC to return to discuss the eminent domain clause after being alerted to it by online critics. The new hearing was just a month after the council committed its support for the legislation.
At the May 8 Warren Town Council meeting, the EBEC got an earful from Ocean State Tea Party in Action. The Town Council didn’t repeal its support for the legislation but did pledge to speak with Rep. Jan Malik, D-Warren/Barrington, about withdrawing support for the measure.
At the Statehouse, the bill seems in doubt. Malik has allegedly already taken his name off the bill, and Rep. Art Handy, D-Cranston, chairman of the House Committee on the Environment and Natural Resources said the legislation didn’t seem likely to pass this year. Even before the online uproar, he said, there wasn’t a “push” from House members to pass the bill. “I think there’s no energy or enthusiasm to move (the bill) on the House side,” he said.
On May 4, the EBEC made changes to the bill clarifying the eminent domain language. Napolitano also said Senate President Teresa Paiva Weed, D-Jamestown/Newport, would garner support for the bill. The EBEC also insisted that the legislation can be changed at the Statehouse, but offered no alternative to the eminent domain clause at its recent meeting.
EBEC members reasoned that it would be unwise to withdraw from the group as their communities would lose their share of the revenue generated from the wind project or other renewable energy initiatives.
“We’re truly on the 1-yard line,” Napolitano said. “We need to get the ball over.”