MIDDLEBURY – The governor signed into law a bill that he said equips towns with increased influence for energy projects.
Signed Monday afternoon, S. 260 is Gov. Peter Shumlin’s last bill. He said the bill addresses criticism of weak local control over wind and solar-energy projects, while simultaneously supporting the growth of green-energy infrastructure. The bill’s passage comes about a week after Shumlin vetoed S. 230, a very similar bill related to energy projects. On Thursday, the House and Senate pushed the bill S. 260 – essentially an updated version of S. 230 – through in one day. Towns and regional planning commissions can now indicate specific areas where such projects are acceptable.
One municipal official said the new law respects Vermont’s renewable energy goals as well as the desires of citizens to protect scenic landscapes.
“Some local communities have expressed concerns about the siting of renewable energy installations. This law strikes … a balance between those concerns and the need to get 90 percent of Vermont’s energy from renewable sources by 2050,” said Weybridge Energy Committee member Fran Putnam.
Shumlin signed the bill during a conference at the Addison County Regional Planning Commission offices, attended by lawmakers, the media and members of the public. He thanked officials including Speaker of the House Shap Smith, D-Lamoille-Washington, Rep. Anthony Klein, D-Washington, and Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, for spearheading the bill into law.
Rep. Thomas Terenzini, R-Rutland Town, was reached by phone Monday afternoon. Terenzini said he voted against S. 260 last week, and leveled heavy criticism against the bill, Shumlin and administration insiders.
The bill is “smoke and mirrors,” and won’t change the status quo. He said that while S. 260 gives towns increased “deference” over energy projects, it still leaves the state Public Service Board with the ultimate decision.
“It was a bill that doesn’t give … what Rutland Town needs, and that’s the final say of where renewable energy projects or any electrical generation project can go. … We don’t want lip service from guys like Senator Christopher Bray and people like Representative Tony Klein. I mean, that’s all it was – just lip service. … You’ve got politicians that control this state. They’re all in bed together. … You’ve got the Shumlin administration and you’ve got (Public Service Department Commissioner) Chris Recchia who is just a mouthpiece for Shumlin.”
Rutland Town officials began a solar resolution in 2014 that encourages town governments to pressure lawmakers for increased siting control. The coalition currently has over 150 towns aboard.
“(S. 260) is a meaningless bill that doesn’t give what Rutland Town and over 130 other towns in the state want,” Terenzini added.
Supporters of the bill, including Bray, characterized S. 260 as part of a widespread “transformation” of Vermont energy policy, saying it is a powerful tool that establishes a connection between local municipalities and state regulators.
“Until now, we lacked a link,” Bray said. “S. 260 builds this essential link.”
Klein, chairman of the House Committee on Natural Resources and Energy, said it’s imperative for Vermont to continue a build-out of green-energy infrastructure for future generations.
Klein motioned to two children sitting in the front row.
“The reason I personally have made (energy policy) a mission is … because of Vermonters like these two … in the front row,” Klein said. “It’s their future.”
Speaker of the House Shap Smith said it is the duty of lawmakers to compare policy against the demands of citizens.
“I thought it was the obligation of the Legislature to find a balance,” Smith said.
Adam Lougee, executive director of the Addison County Regional Planning Commission, hailed the bill as a triumph of bottom-up governance.
“Solar siting has been and remains a controversial topic in Addison County and Vermont,” Lougee said. “This bill … stands as an important piece of legislation … because it recognizes the importance of planning and citizen involvement. Government works most efficiently, thoughtfully and effectively when it is crafted by citizens that have an interest in the outcome.”
Following the conference, Public Works Department Commissioner Chris Recchia said the energy-siting issue evolved as the energy infrastructure changed.
“As we move from generation systems that are one big plant to these distributed systems, it looks more like an issue of local control. … We will in the review of these projects … give substantial deference to the towns. This provides a mechanism.”
The bill also provides money to train and update municipal officials.
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