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Who truly decides on wind project sitings?

Where industrial wind projects are placed in Vermont today is obvious: they are located at the highest elevation on ridgelines, on land that is owned or leased by an energy developer. But given the huge impact that such projects have upon the ecology of ridgelines, the quality of life of those who live nearby, the value of their homes and the character of a town, the crucial question is who decides where such projects are located.

The short answer seems to be that the Public Service Board decides where such privately owned industrial plants are placed, but this would be incorrect. What the PSB decides is not where to put such installations but only whether to approved or reject a plan submitted by a landowner and a speculative merchant power developer to locate a project on a site that they, and they alone, choose.

Given the impact of such installations, it would seem that the board would turn to the citizens of the town(s) affected and give their democratically elected officials and their publically vetted town plans a substantial role in determining the outcome of such an important decision. They, too, should decide. But Section 248 of Title 30, which sets rules for such applications, only requires the board to give town and regional plans “due consideration.” Municipal and regional input to the siting process is reduced to “advising” the board, to expressing preferences.

The closing days of this legislative session saw several senators try to give town and regional commissions a stronger voice in land use decisions by introducing an amendment to H.40, a new bill focused on energy policy. The goal of the amendment was to replace the tepid requirement that the board give “due consideration” to town and regional plans with a requirement for “substantial deference.” In practice this change amounts to nothing more than requiring the board to state its reasons for ignoring “the land conservation measures” found in such plans, should the board elect to do so. Even “substantial deference” can be “outweighed” by “other factors affecting the good of the State.” It is very long way from “binding deference.”

The entire Senate delegation from the Northeast Kingdom – the ones with the most experience with industrial wind projects – voted in favor of the amendment. The three senators from Rutland County and two senators from Windsor Country along with others joined them. Yet both Sens. Jeannette White and Becca Balint, who represent Windham, Grafton and Townshend – the towns now facing a proposal to install up to 30 industrial wind turbines on their shared ridgelines – voted to deny their constituents even this modest statutory standing. The amendment failed. As a result, the current relegation of municipal and regional conservation plans to a “consideration” continues unchanged.

The best way to understand our two senators’ votes is in terms of the practical result. All three towns are heavily invested in protecting the special ecology of the Windham-Grafton-Townshend ridgelines and the Saxtons River Watershed. By rejecting the amendment’s modest “substantial deference,” the well-designed environmental safeguards built into Windham’s town plan, developed with our neighbors in mind, are vacated.

But just who is in the best position to judge the tangible ecological, and then health, social and economic outcomes of an industrial turbine installation? Do we truly believe that Meadowsend Timberlands LLC, a private out-of-state landowner, and Iberdrola S.A., a multinational corporation based in Spain, have the best vantage point from which to decide on appropriate land use and conservation measures for southeastern Vermont? Do we think these two corporations, both drawn by lucrative contracts with federal subsidies, are better positioned than the towns to decide on the whether the Windham-Grafton-Townshend ridgelines is an suitable site for up to 30 3.0 or 3.3. megawatt industrial turbines? Their plan would fundamentally dismantle the configuration and ecology of our ridgelines and their watersheds, especially troubling given the history of flooding in Grafton. Forests are renewable; ridgelines are not. Do we honestly think these corporations, hiding behind a thin veil of saving the planet, are the true environmentalists? It seems that our two senators do.