Imagine the frustration of yelling at the top of your lungs in a room full of people, but no one hears you.
That can be what it’s like for towns that want to fight proposals for renewable energy projects within their limits: They don’t have much of a say when it comes to the location of wind and solar farms.
Stowe felt the futility of shouting into the crowd during a planning commission meeting on Dec. 5, when Stowe’s town planner, Tom Jackman, explained to the neighbors of a proposed solar farm on Cady Hill Road that, ultimately, the state approval process didn’t have to take neighbors’ opinions into account.
Those Stowe neighbors, and other area residents like them, could be handed a bullhorn to boost the volume and spread of their voices if town officials decide to draft an enhanced energy plan.
Last year, the Vermont Legislature passed Act 174, which allows for beefed-up local energy project siting.
Towns have been worrying that renewable energy projects will wind up where they’re not wanted. Communities now have more options, provided they start talking about where they do want them before those projects come up for consideration.
Act 174 allows towns to draft an enhanced energy plan. Those plans will be given “substantial deference” when the Vermont Public Service Board decides whether to issue a certificate of public good, allowing the project to be built.
Right now, the Public Service Board will give voice to municipalities only if their town plans specify policies on renewable energy projects, and even then, that voice isn’t very loud.
When a municipality has only a town plan that addresses solar power, the Public Service Board is required to give it only what Geoff Commons calls “due consideration.” Commons is director of the public advocacy division of the Vermont Department of Public Service.
Due consideration is “pretty undefined,” Commons said. “It’s whatever consideration the Public Service Board believes the town is due.”
Act 174 came with a definition of “substantial deference” that “really puts some flesh on the bones” of town voices, Commons said. “Basically, it means the board must consider it.”
Essentially, individual municipalities will be given more of a say when it comes to renewable energy projects, like solar or wind farms, in their proverbial backyards.
If a renewable energy project has already been approved, there’s nothing an enhanced energy plan can do after the fact; however, it can give municipalities a hand on the wheel when it comes to steering development going forward.
Act 174 serves two purposes, said Lea Kilvadyova, a regional planner with Lamoille County Planning Commission: it gives towns a voice, but it also helps them contribute to meeting the state’s goal to have 90 percent of the energy used come from renewable sources by the year 2050.
The Public Service Board issued standards last month, outlining the territory an enhanced energy plan would have to cover to earn substantial deference for a town. The Lamoille County Planning Commission held a public meeting on Dec. 12 to go over these standards with communities.
Towns have to outline their goals for renewable energy, including how much of their energy they hope to obtain from clean sources, as well as provide discussion about how they plan to achieve those goals.
Significantly, an enhanced energy plan must also include a map that outlines where renewable energy projects can be constructed, and where the town is opposed to allowing them. The more specific these maps are, the better the town’s chances are of being granted substantial deference, Kilvadyova said.
Kilvadyova said no town in Vermont has an enhanced energy plan yet. Judging by the meeting turnout alone – almost 30 people showed up – she suspects there’s a lot of interest in crafting one in Lamoille County.
The Lamoille County Planning Commission has funds from the state to offer help to three of its member towns; so far, five have applied, including Stowe.
To get the financial help, the work must be completed by this June, said Tasha Wallis, executive director of Lamoille County Planning Commission.
Drafting an acceptable enhanced energy plan won’t be easy, Kilvadyova warned.
“It’s going to be hard for the community to agree on where would be acceptable” for renewable energy projects, she said. “There are some deep discussions that need to be had.”
“It’s complicated,” agreed Wallis.
• Stowe plans to get started updating its town plan as soon as the Lamoille County Planning Commission changes its regional plan to allow for enhanced energy plans, according to Tom Jackman, Stowe’s town planner.
On Feb. 13, Stowe residents can hear more when representatives from the Lamoille County Planning Commission come to a joint meeting of the Stowe Select Board and the Stowe Planning Commission.
• Greg Paus, chair of Hyde Park’s planning commission, attended the Dec. 12 meeting and said Hyde Park will be drafting an enhanced energy plan, although he won’t know when work will begin until he knows whether Hyde Park will be granted some of the state funding.
“It’s pretty complicated,” especially since Hyde Park doesn’t have a professional planner, Paus said. “We couldn’t do it without the regional planning commission.”
Paus is one of the commission members.
Paus says substantial deference will give Hyde Park some real teeth when it comes to renewable energy projects in the future – something the town hasn’t had in the past.
Since Hyde Park just had a municipal solar farm go online earlier this year that supplies 13 percent of the town’s energy demand, it’s meeting its renewable energy goals and likely won’t be looking for more solar farms in the foreseeable future, Paus said.
• In Johnson, the situation looks the same, said Duncan Hastings, who was town manager there for 14 years. The town’s planning commission has asked the Lamoille County Planning Commission for financial aid to get the resources together to draw up a plan.
Hastings is on the board of the Lamoille County Planning Commission and voted for the commission to draw up a regional plan allowing municipal enhanced energy plans.
Hastings thinks substantial deference will help individual towns, but could throw a wrench into the state’s plan to have 90 percent of Vermont’s energy come from renewable sources by 2050, a goal he called “laudable.”
“I think this is an attempt by the Legislature to respond to municipal officials feeling like they have not had an adequate say in the Act 248 process,” Hastings said. “There’s going to be a fundamental butting of heads occasionally in order to meet the state’s goals in renewable energy and meet municipal goals for where those should be sited.”
Hastings added, “there will be times when the Public Service Board is simply going to have to make a decision about a renewable energy resource being located in a town that may not fully comport with the town’s wishes or desires.”
• Since Morrisville is no longer part of the Lamoille County Planning Commission, its town officials aren’t sure “how that’s all going to sugar off” when it comes to drawing up an enhanced energy plan, said Todd Thomas, town planner. Morrisville’s town plan isn’t due to be rewritten until 2020, so “we have some time,” Thomas said. In the meantime, Morrisville’s zoning regulations have a solar screening requirement, and Thomas doesn’t feel the town has any ridgelines that would be suitable for wind development.
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