Vermont officials have pushed hard for renewable-energy development, but the issue of where to build those facilities remains vexing.
The House Natural Resources and Energy Committee is tackling that problem, examining a number of bills and taking testimony regarding “energy facility siting” – where installations such as solar panels and wind turbines ought to be built, and how to balance the interests of the state, town governments, landowners and developers.
“The one common denominator through it all is that people want a larger voice in the process,” said Rep. Mike Hebert, R-Vernon and a member of the committee.
Last week, the committee heard testimony from two towns where energy siting is a major issue: A developer is considering the feasibility of installing Windham County’s first commercial wind turbines on privately owned timberland in Windham and Grafton, and the issue has divided locals.
Windham town officials oppose the project, and Windham’s updated town plan – adopted in January – prohibits any development in forested districts. On Wednesday in Montpelier, Selectboard members Mary Boyer and Frank Seawright reiterated their belief that town plans should receive more than “due consideration” as currently called for in the state’s energy-permitting process.
“A town plan is a social contract among the members of a community. The purpose of the plan is to set out an agreed-upon vision for the future land use within the context of a town’s history, setting, resources and community values,” Boyer said. “That agreement is clearly established so that no single member of the community, whether resident or absentee owner, can distort, destroy or dominate the intent or execution of that shared vision through inappropriate land use.”
She added that “the protection of valuable lands and the preservation of our natural and cultural heritage are the concerns that are at the heart of town plans, and so their importance cannot be overstated.”
Also testifying Wednesday was Liisa Kissel, an opponent of the proposed wind project in Grafton. Kissel reiterated her environmental and economic concerns and said she supported Windham’s push for more local input in the state’s energy-siting process.
“The affected communities must be engaged in a substantive manner from the beginning,” Kissel said.
The energy-siting debate represents a lot of work, and time is running out for the Legislature: The 2015 session ends next month. Prior to last week’s testimony, Hebert said his committee was trying to consolidate nine energy-siting bills into one. While a vote this year remains remotely possible, “it’s more likely that we will be taking it up next session,” Hebert said.
In other legislative business related to Windham County and its lawmakers:
— Also testifying in Montpelier last week were two others with local ties: Windham Regional Commission Executive Director Chris Campany, who spoke about the role of local and regional planning when responding to economic problems, and Paul Millman, co-founder of Rockingham-based Chroma Technology Corp.
Millman testified before the House General, Housing and Military Affairs Committee in support of H.187, a bill aimed at ensuring that all Vermont employees have access to paid sick leave.
“There are 60,000 working Vermonters who don’t benefit from paid time off,” Millman told the Reformer after his testimony. “The Chamber (of Commerce) argues that they are concerned about this but don’t want to see it mandated. They say that most of their members provide this benefit to their employees. If that’s the case, why do we still have 60,000 people without the benefit of any paid time off?”
— Rep. Mollie Burke, P/D-Brattleboro and a member of the House Transportation Committee, said lawmakers were working to incorporate related bills into a larger transportation bill approved by the Senate.
“For example, two bills that I have sponsored will become part of this omnibus bill,” Burke said. “H. 214 allows the Motor Vehicle Arbitration Board to issue an administrative decision when there is an uncontested case of consumer complaint regarding a motor vehicle. Currently, the owner of the vehicle has to drive or tow the vehicle to Montpelier for a hearing even in an uncontested case.”
“The other bill, H. 313, clarifies the law governing parking spaces for persons with disabilities,” Burke added. “It clarifies that a non-disabled person can park in a designated spot if they are transporting a disabled person with an official license plate or placard. This is in response to several complaints from the disability community about problems in this area.”
— A health-care bill in the House uses a sugar-sweetened beverage tax as one of its revenue sources, and Rep. Matt Trieber, D-Rockingham, made it clear that he’s no fan of such taxes. But from his seat on the House Appropriations Committee, Trieber said his lingering concern about the health care bill comes from a different perspective: He isn’t sure the package is financially feasible in the long run.
“There are some outstanding questions about what that bill does to spending in the future,” Trieber said Friday. “And we have some interesting revenue issues coming up.”
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