MONTPELIER, Vt. – Senators approved a renewable energy siting bill on Thursday but shot down amendments favorable to towns, ratepayers and victims of industrial wind-turbine noise.
After a marathon six-hour session, the long-anticipated energy siting bill S.230 passed the Senate by a 22-3 vote. The Democratic-controlled body voted down a handful of key amendments, ultimately draining enthusiasm from those who want towns to have real authority in the siting process.
The legislation sets up a statewide planning process in which municipal and regional planners identify preferred sites for renewable energy and submit plans for approval by the Public Service Board. For town plans to win approval, they must be written in a way that helps meet ambitious renewable targets set forth in the state’s Comprehensive Energy Plan.
Taking cues from the bill’s list of preferred sites, town planners must identify acceptable areas for renewable energy development. They must also specify lands the town wants protected.
According to the Senate-approved bill, the board will give “substantial deference” to town plans unless there is clear and convincing evidence that other factors affecting the public good of the state are determined to take priority over the will of the people.
The bill also designates regional planning commissions as intermediaries to work with towns and the PSB to align goals with the state’s energy plan. The process is based on a planning model developed with input from RPCs of Bennington County, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee and Northwestern.
Debate over town authority
Throughout the afternoon, the Democrat-controlled body blocked amendments from state Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans. Rodgers attempted to give authority to the more than 100 Vermont towns seeking to end the Public Service Board’s rubber-stamping of solar and wind development. The reaction by towns has come to be known as the Vermont Energy Rebellion.
One Rodgers amendment would have altered S.230 so that town and municipal plans wouldn’t require the PSB approval.
“I do not believe it is appropriate for an employee of the governor of the state of Vermont to be in charge of approving or disapproving municipal or regional plans,” Rodgers said. “This amendment, for those of us who support it, will state that we do have faith in our municipal and regional planners.”
State Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, chair of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, rose in opposition, saying, “I can’t recommend such a dramatic change to the bill.” He added that the bill’s “substantial deference” language was sufficient for town planners, and that the amendment would break down the linkages between state, regional and town planners.
State Sen. Ann Cummings, D-Washington, sided with Bray. “What this bill does is say, ‘OK, towns, you have to do your part. You can’t just say no, which is what a referendum does. You have to tell us where we can site stuff in your community. … And if you do your part, you get a say in the process.’”
Cummings alluded to referendums last fall in which the people of Irasburg voted 274-9 to block two 500-foot-tall turbines on Kidder Hill, and Swanton residents voted 731-160 to reject seven similarly-sized turbines planned for Rocky Ridge.
State Sen. Dustin Degree, R-Franklin, who co-sponsored the Rodgers amendment, said the real break down was between the Public Service Department and the people of Vermont.
“I live in a district where it took almost 25 years to get a Walmart on the corner of I-89 and Route 7, because that’s how our permitting process and land use regulations dealt with that,” Degree said. “Yet we have giant renewable energy projects that are forever changing the landscape and culture of our communities that towns and municipal governments have absolutely no say over.”
“Basically, this is saying I don’t want you to punch me in the face, but if you are going to punch me in the face, please punch me on the arm,” he added.
The amendment failed by a 19-6 roll call vote. Lawmakers who voted for the amendment include Sens. Joseph Benning, R-Caledonia; Brian Collamore, R-Rutland; Degree, R-Franklin; Jane Kitchel, D-Caledonia; and Rodgers, D-Essex/Orleans.
No relief for noise sufferers
Another debate took place over residents who say they suffer noise-related health issues caused by the Sheffield Wind Project in the Northeast Kingdom, Lowell Mountain Wind, and the Georgia Mountain Wind project in the towns of Milton and Georgia. Residents reporting sleeplessness and seasickness have been unable to get the Public Service Board to fully investigate and enforce noise limits included in those certificates of public good.
One of Rodgers’ amendments said if residents believe the terms of the certificate of public good are being violated, the PSB must set up continuous monitoring of volume and vibrations using an independent acoustical engineer paid for by the developer.
“We’ve been having these sound complaints and nothing has happened,” Rodgers said. “The data gathered by one of the developers still has not been released, so the complainants have gotten no results. The department hasn’t released the results, and this is an attempt to get to the bottom of the complaints and figure out who is in the right.”
Benning urged colleagues to pass the noise amendment, saying, “If we fail to pass it, they (developers) will make an argument in court that they don’t have any responsibility to do that.”
State Sen. Tim Ashe, D/P-Chittenden, spoke strongly against the Rodgers amendment, as did state Sen. Anthony Pollina, P/D-Washington. The senators argued monitoring is already possible through the PSB, and that passing another law was not the right path to get the board to act in a more timely fashion.
“We’re always good at passing laws, but we’re not very good at making sure people follow through with those laws or that we enforce those laws,” Pollina said. “I would hope that one thing we could do is make some kind of strong decision that directs the board to do what its supposed to be doing.”
Senators shot down a provision that would have applied the noise monitoring retroactively to cases like Sheffield, Lowell and Georgia Mountain, and the rest of the amendment was voted down 18-8. Senators supporting the noise amendment included Benning; Campbell, D-Windsor; Collamore; Degree; Flory, R-Rutland; Kitchel; Mullin, R-Rutland; and Rodgers.
Who pays for planning efforts?
State Sen. Kevin Mullin, R-Rutland, put forth an amendment to make developers pay the $300,000 appropriated in the bill to support town and regional planning efforts. Mullin’s amendment, which aimed to take the cost off Vermont ratepayers, was defeated by a 16-10 vote. State Sen. Chris Bray, D-Addison, stood in opposition, saying, “We should welcome (developers) because they’re helping the state meet its own energy goals that we adopted into statute.”
Perhaps the most interesting vote of the day came from state Sen. David Zuckerman, P/D-Chittenden, candidate for lieutenant governor. Zuckerman voted against the Rodgers sound-monitoring and town-authority amendments yet voted no to the entire bill, along with Rodgers and Degree.
When asked about his opposition to giving towns authority, Zuckerman told Vermont Watchdog that energy policy has “always been about the societal good and the balance with the individual,” and drawing that line in the right place.
“We can change that line, but we have to understand all the implications of moving that,” he said, “including reducing renewable energy when our global climate situation would deem that as an overarching concern.”
During one exchange, Zuckerman voiced support for an amendment requiring that a Health Department sound-distance study conducted for a current energy docket be presented as a potential precedent for future energy siting. Zuckerman viewed the bill language as an opportunity for Vermonters to oppose jet noise coming from F-35 fighter planes going in and out of the Burlington International Airport.
“As a longstanding outspoken critic of the change in noise levels that the F-35s are going to create, this would be a great precedent to be set,” Zuckerman said. “We would be establishing that something that is generally for the public good, we could limit due to a noise level regardless of its source. We would be saying sound levels matter. So for that, I’m all for this amendment.”
Reaction from observers
Melodie McLane, a Vermonter who lives less than a mile from the Georgia Mountain wind turbines, expressed her disappointment with the Senate. “I would like the full-time sound monitoring – it would be a start,” she said. “In the winter, with the doors and windows shut, we can hear the rumble of the TV.” She added that the acceptable noise levels of 45 decibels is too high and needs to be adjusted.
Ben Walsh, climate and energy program director at the Vermont Public Interest Research Group, agreed with senators’ decision to reject retroactive sound monitoring of wind-energy electrical plants.
“Going back and saying every wind facility, whether or not they have any kind of violation, has to have monitoring, that could cost us hundreds of thousands potentially annually, forever, even if no violation ever happens,” he told Vermont Watchdog.