MONTPELIER – On Friday the General Assembly gave final approval to a renewable energy siting bill, S. 230, that will have a direct impact on the proposed Swanton Wind project.
The controversial bill has faced as much debate as renewable energy projects themselves since its introduction at the beginning of January, including claims a sound provision was unconstitutional and a threatened gubernatorial veto.
Some legislators argued the bill didn’t go far enough – for example, Swanton’s Republican Rep. Marianna Gamache, who was concerned that S.230 contained no wind sound requirements. Currently, the PSB’s maximum threshold for industrial wind sound is 45 decibels (dB), averaged over an hour.
It was the sound issue that took the wind out of S.230’s sails. The bill was tossed and turned in the House and the Senate until legislators compromised, and agreed that the PSB should set more specific noise standards.
As originally written, the Public Service Board (PSB) was tasked with writing new sound standards for wind projects by September 2017. However, the standards would apply retroactively to applications filed between April 15 of this year and the adoption of the standards in 2017.
Rep. Tony Klein, chair of the House Natural Resources and Energy Committee, expressed concern about the constitutionality of applying regulations retroactively.
Gov. Peter Shumlin agreed, threatening to veto the bill over the retroactive application of the new regulations.
Klein also hinted that the opposition to Swanton Wind was a driving factor behind the compromise, telling VTDigger that his “policy mind, and fairness mind, don’t like what I did. But if it could calm a community down, and have the least impact on development, I’m okay.”
The veto threat sent legislators back to the drawing board to create a new compromise.
Now wind turbine approvals are delayed for 45 days, during which the PSB must write provisional sound standards that will apply through July 2017. Permanent rules on sound are due that month.
When speaking about the retroactive sound provisions, Rep. Klein specifically noted they would affect the proposed and highly controversial Swanton Wind Project, the brainchild of the Belisle family, Gerald, Travis and Ashley.
The project’s legal representative, Anthony Iarrapino, said, “I think it’s unfortunate and entirely unfair for the legislature, and specifically the chair of the House Natural Resources committee, to admit that they’re specifically targeting one project before that project has even filed for an application and without ever inviting anyone from the project to present testimony at the legislature.”
Iarrapino sees this singling out as part of a pattern, “people jumping to conclusions before they see the extent to which the project is investing in design and measures that will meet or exceed the environmental and public health standards that have traditionally been required by the state of Vermont.
“I think people are overestimating the benefit of these provisions’ unfair singling out of the project as being something that’s going to kill the project off. That’s just not the case.”
What the provisions actually do, Iarrapino said, is create a “moving target,” fluid and shifting project requirements that make a final and concrete application more difficult. He likens the legislature’s back and forth to an old Charlie Brown skit.
“They’re saying, ‘We want to encourage homegrown Vermont folks like the Belisles to develop projects,’ but right when they’re coming up and getting ready to file, they pull the football away, and the project falls flat on its face.”
Christine Lang is a on Rocky homeowner Ridge Road in Swanton, the proposed site of the wind project. She was at the State House on Friday, awaiting the final verdict on S.230.
Lang says creating a moving target is the opposite of legislators’ intent. “Everybody’s saying you don’t want to rush this,” she said. “You want to get it right.”
Although she was pleased with the final version of S.230’s sound provisions, Lang said she was concerned that the state would not enforce the standards. “There are no boots on the ground,” she said.
Annette Smith, the executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, has opposed the Swanton Wind Project, as well as other large industrial wind projects in the state.
Smith said S.230 “was never a good bill. The Senate Committee wasted a lot of time and threw a lot in that was never going to pass, and they wasted testimony. The Senate Finance Committee did more on the bill in three days than the Natural Resources Committee did in months.”
Smith called the bill’s statement that the PSB will give municipal energy plans certified by the Department of Public Service “substantial deference” “really ridiculous.”
“It takes six months to a year to work on a plan like that,” she said. “I can’t imagine anyone will want to go through that. It’s insulting to [municipal] planners.”
However, Smith agreed Rep. Klein “did a good thing” in compromising on noise standard provisions. “That’s progress,” Smith said. “It’s a direct result of citizens coming in and sitting in on the discussions, people in there all day saying, ‘Help protect us.’
“I’ve been fighting for good renewable energy legislation for seven years,” Smith said. “That one line in this bill was worth fighting for. It’s certainly not what we wanted. But it’s good.”
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