MONTPELIER – A legislative push to give towns and regional planning commissions more say in the siting of industrial wind towers appears to be dead, following a preliminary vote here Tuesday in the Senate.
The vote came after a marathon, contentious and at times personal debate that started at the fall of the morning gavel and lasted past the noon hour. The result is expected to hold when the Senate takes up the bill for the third and final time later this week.
Little remains of a bill that started out as a call for a three-year moratorium on wind and morphed into legislation to reform the permitting process by adding Act 250 criteria and by putting wind development on hold for roughly eight months of study.
What’s left in the measure passed by the Senate Tuesday is a $75,000 appropriation for the creation of a Joint Energy Committee that will evaluate recommendations due out next month from the Governor’s siting commission.
Presumably, the role of towns and the regional commissions in the siting process will be revisited when the committee meets.
The vote was seen as a defeat by the two senators representing Essex and Orleans counties, whose ridgelines are prized by wind developers.
“They stripped the meat out of it,” said Senator John Rodgers, a member of the Senate Committee on Natural Resources that created the bill.
“They took the soup and left the broth,” said Senator Bobby Starr, who during the debate defended the bill as a “commonsense, down-to-earth proposal.
“All it’s asking for is for people to be heard,” he said.
After the debate was over and the vote was in, the region’s senior senator put his best spin on the results by saying a half a loaf was better than none.
A straight up and down vote on the bill was avoided when Senator David Zuckerman prevailed with an amendment that stripped out its key provisions. It took the unusual route of being voted on twice. Defeated the first time when Lieutenant Governor Phil Scot broke a tie by voting against it, the amendment was rekindled when Bennington Senator Dick Sears asked if he could change his vote. His request led to a second vote by the full Senate.
During the debate, Senator Sears had spoken out against the bill and the intent to add Act 250 criteria to the siting process. That would be an intrusion into the present permitting process, he said. It would have the effect of “opening up a can of worms that doesn’t need to be open.”
And with his support the Zuckerman amendment passed by two votes, 16 to 14.
In a brief interview outside the Senate Chamber, Senator Zuckerman said he offered the amendment in the belief the bill was sending a “false hope message” to towns. He said the veto power the bill gave them and the regional commissions could be taken away after eight months had passed and the legislation had sunset.
On the floor he said the bill was duplicating the work of the Governor’s siting commission, and raised the specter of global warming.
“We have a climate crisis on our hands,” he warned.
Stripped of what many believed to be its essential components, the amended bill passed easily. If the outcome disappointed Senator Joe Benning, the legislator who a year ago spearheaded the call for a three-year moratorium, he didn’t show it during a brief interview after the vote.
He said that with a stronger vote to back it up, the bill would stand a better chance of getting a fair hearing before the House.
“It’s keeping the discussion alive and that is the most important thing of what this last month has been about,” he said.
If words could draw blood, the Senate floor might have become slippery. Senator Dick McCormack could have been speaking about the debate when he called the issues surrounding the bill “a clash of non-negotiables.”
At different points along the way, the debate pitted one core value against another: the public good versus local control; global warming versus protecting the environment; rural Vermont versus urban; and the urgency to develop renewable energy versus planning and evaluation.
Senators from the Northeast Kingdom led the way in charging that the most rural corner of the state was being picked on.
Early in the debate Senator Rodgers said Chittenden County didn’t want the Northeast Kingdom to stop the development of renewable energy. With two wind farms already in place and a landfill taking a large share of the state’s waste, he argued it was time for some other region to step up to the plate.
“A nice landfill in Burlington could conserve diesel fuel and cut down on carbon emissions,” he said at one point.
The freshman Glover senator applauded the bill for giving small towns a voice and financial aid so they might be able “to compete with the deep pockets of developers.”
Senator Starr continued along that line when he characterized big wind as a runaway development that had pushed its way through his district like a bulldozer.
His constituents were complaining, he said, that they “are not being given a chance to be heard.”
Senator Diane Snelling of Chittenden County introduced the bill as a planning mechanism. She said she “took to heart the concerns over global warming,” and defended the bill as being “very pro renewable energy.” All the bill was asking for, she said, was a better way to site renewables.
One of the uncertainties arising from the debate was how much weight neighboring towns would have in the permitting process. Senator Snelling said there was nothing in the bill that would allow a neighboring town to kill a project.
But others suspected the bill would give towns a veto power. Senator McCormack was among the senators who argued that local control should not override the public good.
“It’s a question of state sovereignty,” he said, pointing out that local control is a power granted to towns by the state.
While Senator Snelling argued that the bill was “a workable proposal to get the best siting for energy,” others argued there was no need for it.
Senator Jeanette White of Windham argued that the bill was redundant and unnecessary. She noted there were no projects waiting in the wings, and said she was uncomfortable with the bill because she believed it discriminated against wind.
Senator Benning became an advocate for changing the permitting process after he climbed Lowell Mountain and viewed how construction had transformed the mountaintop in preparation for the placement of 21 turbines. When he came off the mountain, he decided, “We had a problem that wasn’t being addressed by our government.”
As part of his presentation Tuesday, he passed out a parcel of photographs that documented the destruction on Lowell Mountain. And proceeded to argue that wind developers had gone to the Northeast Kingdom because of its rural isolation and lack of population.
He compared Newark’s town plan with a set of ordinances drawn up by the city of Burlington and pointed out their striking similarities. Each, he said, wanted to preserve their landscape, natural beauty, and views.
Burlington and the surrounding communities within a ten-mile radius account for one-third of the state’s population. But Newark, he said, had a population of 581.
Small towns like Newark, he implied, need protection because wind developers go where they won’t get a push back. Or where resistance is least and likely less affordable.
Senator Mark MacDonald of Orange County said the Kingdom was like the leopard that wanted to change its spots. He said among supporters of the bill were people from the Northeast Kingdom who had brought “cell towers to mountaintops, and Act 250 be damned.”
No great harm would come, he promised, if the bill were defeated.
Each side in the debate claimed to champion action to slow global warming. Senator Richard Westman of Lamoille called it “the most important issue facing us.”
He supported the bill because he said it was making lawmakers struggle with the consequences of what has already been done. And although he was not real happy with the bill, he called the debate surrounding it vital.
For Senator McCormack, the choice hinged on global warming. The planet was in danger, he said, and push had come to shove.
“The very idea I would vote against a bill to regulate a troubling development – something I never thought I would do,” he said.
“I’m going to vote against this bill and break my heart.”
A final vote by the Senate could come as early as Thursday morning.