Swanton voters Tuesday voted 5-1 to oppose the proposed seven 499foot wind turbines proposed for Rocky Ridge, and to support legislation to allow local governments to weigh in on large-scale renewable power projects.
The question is whether the vote matters. By law, it’s the three-person Public Service Board that renders the final decision. Local referendums are not part of the review process.
The board can choose to ignore them altogether. And by law, local governments are not given the power to nix large-scale energy projects. They have no say. Again, the board can ignore whatever any local board chooses to say.
The process is largely a legal one and the developers can elect to push ahead knowing full well that Tuesday’s vote has no legal standing. The early indications are that the developers may do just that, contending that the public was misinformed and that the massive project would be good for the state.
So, does the vote matter? It does. Absolutely. Votes are our most direct means of gauging public concern and involvement. Getting 895 people to come out for a special election vote is highly significant. People are concerned. They want their voices heard. If they thought it was all for naught, they would not have bothered to vote.
It’s also a mistake to dismiss the process contending the public was misled, that there is a “greater good” that the voters were not allowed to consider. There is almost an unlimited amount of information available to anyone with the interest to become informed. On both sides of the wind turbine issue. While it may be obvious that those few who live within the shadow of the proposed project would be concerned, it’s not so obvious that the vast majority of the other voters would agree with their opposition.
As with any issue to be decided at the polls, the ability to make one’s case is as open to the proponents as it is to the opponents. It doesn’t work to contend afterwards that the atmosphere was poisoned, that the public wasn’t open to a fair discussion. Failing to get people to agree with you doesn’t mean they didn’t hear.
In fact, it was the strength of the opposition’s argument that held sway. And that strength went beyond the affect the 499-foot towers would have on those who would live within the project’s reach.
When Green Mountain Power and Vermont Electric Cooperative oppose the project because they don’t need the power and because they could not countenance the costs it would force upon the ratepayers, that’s a compelling argument in opposition.
When the utilities say the full 20-megawatts of wind power would not be a net addition to the state’s renewable energy portfolio, then the motivation for those who support renewables [almost all of us] lessens.
When the governor takes the political leap to cast doubt on the project [and the Ranger Solar projects proposed for Highgate and Sheldon], then voters begin to mirror those same doubts.
When the FAA comes out declaring that the turbines are problematic for operations and constitute “a hazard to air navigation” then issues of safety become more pronounced in the voters’ minds.
These issues, in combination with concerns about health, visual proximity, and home values, proved overwhelming in the minds of Swanton voters. And it’s equally overwhelming for them to believe that all these issues don’t matter, that a quasi-judicial group of three could ignore them all and allow the project to be built.
They are not alone. The voters in Irasburg rendered the same verdict against a wind turbine project outside its town. The developer, David Blittersdorf, intends to push ahead. This same pattern is beginning to emerge throughout the state.
We’ve long argued that there are parts of the renewable energy movement who are its own worst enemy. When large projects are sited over the strenuous objection of the community affected, it’s a process guaranteed to be short-lived. Eventually, the public’s voice will be heard. That’s the political nature of the process.
And it should be. This is a democracy. Processes that depend on being able to mute the public’s voice are doomed. And they should be.
The Public Service Board can ignore Tuesday’s vote. It shouldn’t. To do so, in this particular case, would eliminate its credibility with the public. The board has the responsibility to advocate for the public; to proceed without acknowledging the community’s overwhelming opposition would be an abdication of that responsibility.
The Legislature can also ignore the vote. But the same issue prevails. Do they ignore the concern that is being expressed across Vermont? The challenge is figuring out a way where people’s voices can be heard, and determining a siting process that matches a developer’s needs with a community’s best interests.
It’s not an easy task. But, as the Swanton voters said overwhelmingly Tuesday, it’s a vital one. And they will not be ignored.
by Emerson Lynn