At one point during the hearings over Green Mountain Power’s petition to build a wind power project on Lowell Mountain, one of the three members of the Public Service Board asked why developers were focusing on the Northeast Kingdom.
The question was asked of the landscape architect representing the Green Mountain Club, whose opposition to the project had all but faded away.
Because, she replied that’s where the fewest number of people live and the project is too controversial to be sited in a densely settled area of the state.
Her response still underscores the situation facing rural Vermont today in siting wind and solar projects as well as administering education: As rural Vermonters, we have little or no say in too many issues affecting our lives.
Decision-making powers over the siting of renewable energy remains in Montpelier. Despite a groundswell of opposition, bills to change the way big wind or commercial solar arrays are sited still languish in the Legislature. Power continues to reside solely in the hands of the Public Service Board.
People inside and outside the State House are clamoring for a change in the siting process. Yet it is business as usual among legislative leaders and renewable energy advocates.
How did an idea so attractive as making energy from the sun and the wind go so bad? You need look no further than the rural people and the small towns that are being singled out to host these projects.
Last month at the State House a large, spirited crowd of citizens turned out to enthusiastically support Sen. John Rodgers’ call to ban the development of big wind in Vermont. At the same time, he called for a more democratic process for siting renewable energy projects in the state: a collaborative approach between a host town and its neighbors.
Presently, he said, “We have no local control and Vermonters are becoming increasingly angry because of it.”
Underscoring the senator’s frustration is the fact that Vermont is still a rural state. According to statistics published in the forward to its 2016 calendar, the Fish & Wildlife Department says that Vermont is the most rural state in the nation, “with more than 60 percent of its population living in small towns and on farms.”
Why then is more and more power flowing more and more toward the center? Further and further away from the people who will be most affected by decisions made for them elsewhere.
Recently, the Legislature had to hold a late night session to fine-tune Act 46, a bill to change the way Vermont schools are administered and paid for.
As in building industrial wind projects on remote ridgelines, consolidating smaller schools into larger administrative districts is a political decision made by the few for the many.
More than one rural community has been divided over the issue of siting big wind in the proverbial backyard. Now, as a result of Act 46, who will decide if a small school should be shut down? Most likely it will not be a local decision.
“I believe that we need to maintain and preserve the voice of our local communities, work collaboratively and respect autonomy,” said North Country Supervisory Union Superintendent John Castle, who was quoted recently in the Chronicle, speaking out against Act 46 and consolidation. (NCUS serves an area that stretches from Jay to Island Pond.)
Mr. Castle was on the right track, only what rings true for education also rings equally true for other rural issues, such as industrial turbines on ridgelines, a carbon tax and stiffer guns regulations.
What is needed is a more expansive political voice that will speak loudly and represent rural people.
What is needed is a rural caucus among legislators from the outback regions of the state whose voices are being marginalized by the powers of consolidation.
What is needed is a reassertion of that declaration made by Ethan Allen ages ago when he was leading the Green Mountain Boys: “The gods of the valleys are not the gods of the hills.”
Rep. Paul Lefebvre is a Republican representative for the Essex-Caledonia-Orleans district.
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