May 11, 2012
Rhode Island

Eminent domain concerns buffet wind plans

By Ted Hayes, Sakonnet Times, 10 May 2012

EAST BAY – The Warren Town Council joined several other area towns Tuesday night in expressing concern over legislation that would create a nine-member East Bay Energy Consortium – and give it the power of eminent domain.

Town council members took no action on the legislation, but said they’ll meet with Warren’s representatives and senator to discuss what could happen if the current bill to officially establish EBEC as a quasi-public agency is approved by the General Assembly. At issue? Fear by some that if passed, the legislation would give EBEC broad powers to seize land under eminent domain.

The prospect “makes me very uneasy,” councilor Scott Lial said Tuesday. “There’s no guarantee it’s not going to be used in a dangerous fashion.”

Warren and Barrington Rep. Jan Malik has pulled his support from the current legislation, saying that while the idea of EBEC is good, the eminent domain mechanism “is not good for Barrington or Warren.”

Why eminent domain?

EBEC was founded by area town councils several years as a way to promote and establish alternative energy production in the East Bay area, from Newport to Barrington. The organization’s main push is to establish a wind farm in Tiverton. Power not used by local municipalities would be sold back to National Grid, and any profits would be returned to the member towns.

However, the organization is not yet an official quasi-public agency. It’s an important distinction, said EBEC’s Eric Bush, because National Grid will not enter into contracts with the organization if it’s not quasi-public. In order to reach that level, he said Tuesday, the organization has to be granted one of three state-mandated powers: The power to police, the power to tax or the power of eminent domain.

He said it became clear in recent months that EBEC would have to choose one of those three, and officials settled on the power of eminent domain as the lesser of three evils.

Settling on that power was “clearly not something we went through lightly,” he said. “Eminent domain … was considered the least offensive power.”

That doesn’t mean that some residents are not offended, and a handful spoke Tuesday night, as they also did last week at the Portsmouth Town Council meeting and at Monday night’s Tiverton Town Council meeting.

Bristol resident Marina Peterson spoke against the legislation Tuesday, saying she doesn’t trust the creation of any new quasi-public agency given the area’s recent experience with another similar entity, the Bristol County Water Authority. Adding eminent domain to the mix makes it even more unpalatable, she said.

“It’s just too scary,” she told the council. “I think (energy creation) should be done by private industry.”

Touisset resident Andy Shapiro agreed, speaking as a representative of Apex, a private renewable energy company. He warned the council that National Grid will not work with private industry on energy projects when quasi-public agencies, like EBEC, are already established in an area.

EBEC’s Joseph Depasquale said residents need not worry, assuring the council that there will be checks and balances to make sure that the power of eminent domain, if ever used, would be used responsibly.

“This is a municipal project to bring revenue to the municipalities generated by a clean power source,” he said . “We are not trying to create a land-grabbing entity.”

Still, it was not enough to alleviate all councilors’ concerns. Said council president Chris Stanley:

“Most people are in favor of the spirit of what is here,” he said. “But the mechanics …. I don’t want to say we’re opposed, but suspicious.”

Mr. Malik said he’s looking forward to meeting with councilors to discuss the current state of legislation. He noted that there has been talk that a new piece of legislation is being written up that would give the agency its needed status without requiring eminent domain.

“I don’t know how they’d get around that,” he said. “But that’s what they’re working on. I haven’t heard the details of it yet.”

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