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NRPC to oppose Swanton Wind; Motion cites natural resource, aesthetic concerns

ST. ALBANS – The Northwest Regional Planning Commission (NRPC) board of commissioners unanimously approved a motion Wednesday night to oppose Swanton Wind during the Public Service Board’s regulatory process.

The motion ratified a recommendation from the NRPC Policy and Project Review Committee submitted yesterday. The recommendation said the committee “found that the project does not conform with a number of the provisions in the regional plan at minimum with respect to impacts to natural resources, aesthetics and orderly development of the region.”

The recommendation also stated that the committee determined the project, if constructed, would have a substantial regional impact, one of the committee’s criteria in determining to support or oppose projects.

Bakersfield resident Bill Irwin chairs the Policy and Project Review Committee. “We’ve heard from permit applicants themselves. We’ve heard from opponents. We’ve heard from consultants and contractors from both sides, and we have deliberated over those many months,” Irwin told the Board of Commissioners last night. “Through all of the information that has been shared with us and requested from us, there remains quite a bit for us to further learn and understand. But we have a recommendation.”

Irwin abstained from the motion. He said he believes he could be asked to testify in another official capacity regarding the project. The Vermont Department of Health employs Irwin. He also serves on the Vermont Hazardous Materials Response Team.

Swanton resident Chris Leach is a member of the Policy and Project Review Committee. He asked why the committee did not include the likelihood of a negative economic impact in its recommendation.

“None of the power’s going to go even in the state, and our tax dollars are going to pay for subsidies and whatever else,” Leach said. “To me, that’s a negative impact.”

Swanton Wind has not finalized a power purchase agreement with any instate power company. The project’s PSB application stated the power could be purchased by Vermont Electric Power Producers Inc. (VEPPI), and Vermont Environmental Research Associates (VERA) President John Zimmerman said at a recent informational workshop in Swanton that negotiations with Vermont power purchasers are ongoing. The Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection has preliminarily approved the project to meet its own renewable energy goals, though Swanton Wind’s representatives have repeatedly said the project’s developers, Swanton residents Travis and Ashley Belisle, would prefer to keep the energy in Vermont.

Burlington-based attorney David Rugh, who represents the NRPC in the Public Service Board (PSB) process, responded to Leach’s question. Rugh pointed out the phrase “at minimum” within the committee’s recommendation – that phrasing, Rugh said, allows the NRPC to make arguments related to criteria beyond those in the recommendation, including “economic issues, need, reliability and other considerations.”

NRPC Senior Planner Taylor Newton said discovery questions the NRPC filed with the PSB also raised those issues.

As Irwin explained to the Board of Commissioners, “We believe that the three positions here – natural resources, aesthetics and orderly development of the region – are the ones that the regional plan gives us the strongest position on, but that does not limit us from any participation in the docket on economic impacts to the region.”
The NRPC’s draft regional energy plan is available on the front page of its website, nrpcvt.com.

Swanton Wind’s prominent opponents, which now includes selectboards from the towns of Swanton, Fairfield and St. Albans, have urged the NRPC to decide on supporting or opposing the project for months. The PSB is required to give “substantial deference” to projects’ conformance with local regional energy plans, in this case, that of the NRPC, giving the commission’s stance on the project additional weight. Title 30, Section 248 of the Vermont Statutes lays out the requirements the PSB’s regulatory process, often simply referred to as “Section 248.” Its ideal outcome, for developers, is a “Certificate of Public Good” – essentially, approval for construction. The PSB’s regulatory process spans months – its review of Swanton Wind is presently scheduled through October – and operates similar to courtroom proceedings, complete with depositions, testimony and a period of discovery, which is currently underway.

Responses to those discovery questions are due Mar. 2. Parties have submitted a gargantuan list of questions: for example, Swanton residents Christine and Dustin Lang, who reside near the project’s proposed construction site, submitted 170 first round discovery questions.

A public hearing on the project is scheduled for July.