The Senate bill bringing wind generators under the purview of Act 250 reflects the concern of senators that the process now does not give sufficient weight to the views of local communities. It would also put into law the promise of policymakers, including Gov. Peter Shumlin, that wind projects would not be shoved down the throats of towns that don’t want them.
Wind opponents have lamented the fact that the law as it exists puts approval of power projects in the hands of the three-person Public Service Board, which has the authority to approve a project even if it is opposed locally. The Public Service Department, which is part of the administration, has the power to recommend that a project be rejected, but the decision rests with the PSB.
Alarmed at the proliferation of wind projects in the state, opponents had recommended that the Legislature impose a three-year moratorium on ridgeline wind development. Senators crafting the bill have abandoned the moratorium, instead expanding the reach of Act 250, which specifically requires local and regional plans to be considered when projects are reviewed and which also demands special protection for upland alpine terrain.
These maneuvers in Montpelier come as new poll results show that, vocal opposition notwithstanding, wind power continues to enjoy support among a sizable majority of Vermonters. The trend is slightly down, but 69 percent of those polled support wind turbines.
The justification for exempting power projects from Act 250 review is that they are essential infrastructure that we cannot afford to expose to significant delays in protracted Act 250 hearings. Bringing wind projects under Act 250 suggests that in the eyes of some people, our mountaintops are as essential to our way of life as our electric power infrastructure.
It may be only a minority of Vermonters who hold the anti-wind, pro-ridgeline point of view, but their point of view must not be dismissed out of hand. Shumlin and his administration have felt obliged to pay lip service to the idea of local control, and even if a majority of Vermonters back wind power, a majority in a given town or region may well be opposed to a particular wind project, and they may have good reasons. It is good to listen to them.
The concerns of the ridgeline protectors are the fundamentally important concerns that underlie our most important environmental laws: the need to protect fragile topography, water and habitats.
Our mountaintops are among our most fragile environments. That’s why areas on the top of Camel’s Hump are roped off to hikers. We must not spurn the environmental sensitivity that has led a significant minority of people who cherish Vermont’s wild places to react strongly against wind projects.
At the same time, wind power has its place in our energy portfolio – if it can find its place within our mountainous landscape. The moratorium was not a good idea because it foreclosed the possibility, for a time at least, that there would be potential wind sites acceptable to some communities. The climate crisis requires that Vermont continue to lead in the development of sustainable, carbon-free power.
At the same time, the state’s communities ought to have a voice in siting decisions, even if it happens that Vermont’s geography and culture narrow the acceptability of towering mountaintop turbines. In that case, we might conclude that wind power has run its course in Vermont.
Wind power is a good alternative form of power, but no given wind project is so crucial that it needs to be exempted from Act 250. Act 250 review may be the death knell of additional wind projects, but if local opposition is as firm as that, then the deference that Shumlin and others have granted to local control may as well find expression in Act 250, our most important land-use law.
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