Swanton planning commissioners have been accused of breaking open meetings law by crafting ordinances against a local wind developer via email.
The commissioners disagree over whether they violated state law.
Under state statute, two or more commissioners cannot communicate about town business unless they provide at least 24 hours public notice for a meeting.
Jim Hubbard, chair of the commission, denied that the commission had violated the law or that they had committed any impropriety in considering town plan amendments outside a public meeting. At least one of his colleagues disagreed.
Commissioner Ed Daniel told his fellow commissioners at a meeting Wednesday evening they had erred.
“We goofed,” Daniel said over the phone Thursday afternoon. “We made a mistake.”
Hubbard said he did not participate in the email exchange between planning commission members in revising the town’s laws. Daniel said he, commissioner Andy Larocque, and commissioner Sara Luneau-Swan all collaborated over email on new language for the town’s plan.
“Was there any intent to harm anybody?” Daniel asked. “No.”
The Vermont Secretary of State and the Vermont League of Cities and Towns have written guidance letters on the subject of open meetings laws, in which they state that on a five-person commission, no three commissioners “may ever discuss municipal business outside of an open meeting.”
Although Hubbard said he’d been the commission chairman for a decade, and a commissioner for 21 years, he incorrectly stated that no open meetings violation occurred because the commissioners did not take a vote.
Daniel said he’d been in local government for 40 years, and on the planning commission for 10 years, but nevertheless said he “never gave it a second thought” when commissioners distributed multiple emails on the new revisions between one another without public notice.
The revisions concern wording meant to prevent development of a wind farm on a nearby ridge, on property owned by Travis and Ashley Belisle.
Swanton zoning laws specifically say that amendments to town plans are not valid when they apply only to a single, small property.
The Belisle’s attorney, Anthony Iarrapino, said he’s disappointed that planning commissioners appear to be singling out his client, and particularly since they’ve done so through seemingly illegal private emails between public officials.
In a letter to commissioners dated July 18, Iarrapino cites an email between commissioner Sarah Luneau-Swan and Fairfield resident Pennie Dubie. In the email, Luneau-Swan describes a need to arrive at the next planning commission with a completed set of revisions, or to run the risk of delaying the process by another month. She also emphasizes the importance of preventing the Belisles from achieving their aims.
“I was told that the next meeting when it is presented it will be important to have a unified one for review by residents ortherwise if we make any changes that it will stahl [sic] the process for another month and we really need to get it into the plan,” Luneau-Swan wrote. “Also there is concern that Travis [Belisle] and his team will be there and we don’t want to have to make changes or concede to any of their requests.”
A draft of Swanton’s revised municipal plan instructs officials to delete a section dealing with the siting of wind turbines, because it could allow the Belisles to move forward with plans to develop the structures on their land.
“This whole bullet point should be deleted,” the revision says, within square brackets, below the text. “The PSB could use this language to approve [the Belisle’s project on] Rocky Ridge. They cherry pick plans. Do not give them this.”
The author of the comments is not specified, although meeting minutes indicate they may have been written by a consultant.
The draft plan also warns that migrating birds could be killed by wind turbines developed on the Belisles’ property.
The Belisles said this section of the draft plan appears to show that Swanton commissioners have singled out renewable energy among land uses.
The draft town plan condemns wind development because, according to the plan, wind turbines reduce connectivity of wildlife habitat.
Daniels, Luneau-Swan and commissioner Andy Larocque exchanged emails in the interest of finishing the process more quickly, Daniels said. The commission has been attempting to write the new plan for over a year, he said.
Although in an email Luneau-Swan alludes to the need to complete the revisions soon in connection with the Belisles’ project, Daniels said the commission’s sense of urgency in completing the plan does not have anything to do with a 45-day pre-application notice that the Belisles filed with the Public Service Board for their proposed wind turbine project.
The draft revisions have multiple contributors, some of whom don’t live in Swanton, according to emails between town officials.
When asked whether that’s appropriate, Hubbell abruptly hung up the phone.
Iarrapino said the email exchanges raise concerns over the veracity of town officials’ pronouncements of support for local control.
“The issue with people from outside town influencing the content of the town plan raises the question of, is this a local process, or is it broader than that, because the anti-renewable people are always arguing for local control, and the idea that outsiders from the community would interfere with the process seems inconsistent with the principles they’re claiming to uphold,” Iarrapino said.
Hubbard said he’s tabled any further decisions on the town plan for 30 days.
This, Iarrapino said, is what commissioners do when they’re trying to correct an open-meetings-law violation.
“The actions [Wednesday night, when the commission tabled the plan] are certainly consistent with a public body that has to take corrective actions under the open-meetings law,” he said.
Luneau-Swan declined to comment on the record. Commissioners Andy Larocque and Ross Lavoie did not return calls.
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