MONTPELIER – Kim Fried of Newark stood up near the end of a three-hour meeting devoted to the complex requirements of Vermont’s review process for approving energy projects such as ridgeline wind turbines.
His town, Fried said, has done what the state has long urged. It wrote a town plan, drafted through the hard work of volunteers, to set out the town’s vision of its future. Now it’s unclear how much weight that town plan – which opposes commercial-scale wind turbines – will be given by state regulators.
“Where do we get the financial ability to hire experts to testify for us? Where do we find the funds for legal help without bankrupting our town?” he asked members of the Governor’s Commission on Energy Generation Siting Policy.
“We need to figure out a way to allow the public to participate effectively and democratically,” he concluded.
Scattered applause broke out in the Statehouse meeting room where the governor’s commission was holding its first meeting. Half a dozen speakers rose to echo Fried’s concerns.
Gov. Peter Shumlin appointed the panel last month and charged it with suggesting improvements in the energy generation review process laid out in state law and carried out by the Public Service Board.
The panel Wednesday chose Jan Eastman of Peacham, a former secretary of Natural Resources, as its chairman. The other members are former House Speaker Gaye Symington, former Public Service Board Chairman Louise McCarren, former ANR Secretary Scott Johnstone and former Windham Regional Planning Commission Director Jim Matteau.
While the commission was asked to include all kinds of energy generation projects in its review, it is wind turbines that have caused the most widespread controversy in Vermont. Although three commercial projects have been built, and a third is under construction, there has been rising opposition in towns where new projects have been proposed.
Local officials and residents like Fried, who chairs the Newark Planning Commission, say they fear towns do not control their own fate when it comes to industrial projects that will change their ridgelines forever.
State policy, endorsed by the Legislature and the governor, calls for adding in-state renewable-energy generation as quickly as possible.
In the middle sit the Public Service Department – which represents the public interest in the review process – and the Public Service Board, which hears cases and decides them.
The conflict between local wishes and the reality of state law was made clear early in Wednesday’s meeting, as PSD Deputy Commissioner Sarah Hofmann outlined her department’s role.
“Sometimes neighbors (of a project) will say, ‘You are not representing our interest,’” she told the panel. “But we are looking more broadly than that. We are representing the interests of all Vermonters.”
The Public Service Board is required to do a similar balancing act, state lawyers told the blue-ribbon panel. It must consider a town’s wishes, as well as the possible environmental costs of a project – but weighs them against the economic and energy benefits the project will produce.
One criterion the board considers is whether a project represents undue interference with orderly development of a region, as laid out in the town and regional plans, Hofmann said.
‘But I’m emphasizing ‘undue’ interference,” she said. “The board doesn’t have to decide with the region or municipality.”
Towns that want to be sure their interests are defended must hire lawyers and sometimes technical experts to provide evidence to the Public Service Board. Two of the local people who spoke said their towns feel like David facing Goliath.
“You have industrial-scale wind turbine projects that come to town that are going to change the whole nature of the town and the whole region,” Kathleen Iselin of East Haven told the panel. “The developers are able to come in and scout around for two or three years before the town even finds out. Then they spring (their PSB application) on the town, and the town has 30 days to respond.
“There’s something seriously wrong with that. You need to look at the fairness of this,” she said.
Eastman assured the audience the panel will hold hearings across the state in January and February to gather opinions from the public. The commission’s next meeting is Nov. 14, when members will hear from other states about their siting review process.
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