SWANTON – The Swanton Planning Commission’s Wednesday evening meeting was a verbal game of baseball, with the board unofficially split into two teams, each taking its turn to drive in their arguments on proposed language for the town’s municipal energy plan.
The language in question was presented to the commission in April, drafted by Republican Representative Marianna Gamache, Danby native Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment and Justin London, of unidentified municipality.
Private deliberations regarding the three-page proposal led to a complaint that commissioners violated Vermont’s Open Meeting Law, beginning two months of allegations, legal processes and finally legal remedies.
During its two-hour debate last night, the commission was split down the middle on how to approach the proposed language.
Commissioners Ed Daniel and Ross Lavoie argued for a more relaxed, factbased approach to renewable energy siting, while commissioners Andrew Larocque and Sara Luneau-Swan pitched more constrictive language.
The Planning Commission’s chair, Jim Hubbard, assuming the impossible task of satisfying both sides, straddled the line.
The commissioners’ central concern was whether to focus on their vision for Swanton or to focus on strategic phrasing to better ward off the Public Service Board (PSB), the legislative body with the final say in approving energy projects.
Commissioners were immediately split on the language.
Daniel took issue with the line “The use of prime ag soils for green energy projects should be discouraged.” He argued that a farmer with 200 acres of land should be able to use 10 of those acres for solar panels.
“We hear so much, ‘The poor farmer can’t make it today,’” Daniel said. “Well, if here’s an opportunity for him to make a few bucks, so be it.”
Luneau-Swan, on the other hand, argued that the word “shall” had to replace any use of the word “should” to ward off the PSB – for example, “The use of prime ag soils… shall be discouraged” rather than “should be discouraged.”
She argued farmers would not use prime ag soils for energy projects, which were more appropriate for the “rocky hillsides of any Vermont farm.”
“My fear is [that] we will see the fields of Route 105 covered in solar panels,” she said, if the town plan does not prohibit farmers from using prime ag soils.
Daniel said that was a chance he was willing to take.
“I would not want to see what’s happened to Vergennes and Middlebury happen here,” Hubbard said.
Lavoie pointed to examples of farmers in nearby New York, who had sold their cows and “used a couple turbines to retire.” He stressed he wasn’t saying that situation is appropriate in Swanton – only that it was “a shot in the arm” for that community.
“If it’s allowed to be discussed locally and decided locally, it’s fine,” Hubbard said. “The problem is Montpelier. We’re going to be overruled no matter what.”
He said his “pet peeve” for any potential energy project is whether the energy is locally needed.
“If Swanton Electric were going to buy the power, it’d be a no-brainer,” Lavoie agreed.
Luneau-Swan continued arguing for stronger language. She said “we want to be a friendly community,” but that if the PSB only “gets legal jargon,” the town plan needs more specific jargon.
Daniel thought the plan should differentiate between projects for professional and private use. He said he, himself, would put solar panels all over his roof, if he wasn’t limited by age.
Larocque had no such fantasy. “Our town used to have the lowest electric rates,” he said. “That changed because everyone wants solar panels.”
Larocque argued that the commission should “really discourage green energy around town,” and that a better alternative would be hydroelectric dams, “power that’ll be there when the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow.”
Noted wind opponents sat on one side of the public seating, nodding when Luneau-Swan made her arguments and scoffing when Lavoie said, “We’re not here to make the PSB happy.”
Wind proponents, on the other hand, represented only by Swanton Wind developer Travis Belisle and the project’s attorney, Anthony Iarrapino, spent most of the meeting shaking their heads and whispering in disbelief.
Hubbard thwarted audience attempts to comment on the proceedings several times. When outspoken wind opponent Christine Lang asked, “Are we allowed to comment?” Hubbard replied, “We’ve taken a lot of comments over the last 12 months.”
Later in the evening, Gamache raised her hand. Hubbard did his best to focus on the proceedings until Luneau-Swan pointed her out.
“We’re working on these changes right now,” Hubbard said.
“That’s why I want to make a comment,” Gamache said.
Hubbard considered her reply.
“Okay,” he said. “We’ll take a one-sentence comment.”
“It’s a long sentence,” Gamache said. “The more you take out, the more it weakens – .”
“Yep,” Hubbard interrupted, “we’ve heard that many times.” The proceedings continued.
Luneau-Swan said language regarding Swanton’s “scenic ridgeline” should be modified to “scenic ridges to the east of Route 105” in order to combat new PSB rules.
Daniel, on the other hand, said that some days when he drives down the highway past the Georgia Mountain wind project, “I don’t even know the damn things are there.”
“You drive through some areas, it’s really interesting to watch the things turn,” he said.
Luneau-Swan stressed that the evening’s discussion was not related to the Swanton Wind Project. But toward the end of the evening, the discussion turned to just that, with Luneau-Swan disputing a scientific consulting firm’s findings that there was no real bear habitat in the area to be cleared for the wind project.
“They can say there’s no bears up there, but I don’t care,” Luneau-Swan said. “I know there’s bears up there.”
Lavoie took the opposite stance, supporting the project developer’s agreement with the Agency of Natural Resources to improve deer habitat in the proposed project area. “Who’s to say new development won’t help the deer?” Lavoie asked.
He said his parents had planted alfalfa under turbines in New York, on which the deer have been feeding. He said he had just removed a trail cam chip containing 100 pictures of deer.
“I’ve shot deer under those turbines,” he said. “And where’d this verbiage come from?”
“It’s all interpretation,” Hubbard said, straddling the line. “I mean, that’s baiting deer in my book, but that’s interpretation.”
Discussion turned to protecting the Champlain flyway, the migratory route taken by geese and other birds. Luneau-Swan argued Swanton had a critical position in geese migratory patterns. Lavoie, Daniel and Hubbard said that the Champlain flyway shifts further west over time.
“I used to buy four or five boxes of ammunition every year to scare the geese away,” Hubbard said. “There’s nowhere near that much anymore.”
“Development can occur in a safe, thoughtful way without disturbing an ecosystem,” Lavoie concluded.
Hubbard stressed, as always, that he sought a “happy medium.”
The final argument was Larocque’s, for language prohibiting the out-of-state sale of local renewable energy credits. On that, everyone was in agreement.
The big question, Hubbard said, is where the generated renewable energy will be used. “Renewable energy has to have a local benefit,” he said.
The next step is a public hearing regarding the draft energy plan, scheduled for Nov. 2.
“They’ve picked us apart for a year,” Hubbard said. “Now we have a document we can work with them on.”