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Pro–wind energy lawyer decries NIMBYs, backs Senate bill; Ridgeline wind opponent Annette Smith says bill threatens fundamental rights
Vermont’s renewable power industry is promoting a Senate bill, now under committee review, that would weaken local communities’ say during the state approval process for renewable power projects.
S.236 would “limit adjoining landowner participation in 30 V.S.A. § 248 [Public Utilities Commission energy project licensing] cases to public health and safety and traffic and to remove the aesthetics criteria.” The PUC is the state’s ‘energy court,’ resolving all questions dealing with energy projects, including licensing.
State law currently requires that “with respect to a facility located in the State, in response to a request from one or more members of the public or a party, the Public Utility Commission shall hold a nonevidentiary public hearing.” S.236 would add this ‘yes, but’ condition:
“If an adjoining landowner or other person who claims an interest in any proceeding held under this section as a result of owning or occupying property in proximity to the facility under review seek permission to intervene as a party in any proceedings held under this section, their participation is limited to whether the facility will have an undue adverse impact on public health and safety or traffic, and “they must prove that they have a particularized interest protected by this section that may be affected by an act or decision of the Public Utility Commission and that no other party adequately represents their interests.”
The renewable power industry is clearly rankled by its failure to consistently receive PUC approval for project sitings. Under former PUC chair Anthony Roisman, wind turbine projects in particular were held to the letter of Vermont law. But many ‘community solar’ projects also foundered amid neighbors’ objections.
With longtime PUC staff attorney Ed McNamara named to succeed Roisman, the renewable power industry may hope for a more receptive energy court. But the industry also badly wants to see the law changed. And its case for reducing local influence over energy siting was made January 24 by utility lawyer Joslyn Wilschek.
The husband and wife partners of Wilschek Iarrapino Law Office in Montpelier, Wilschek and Anthony Iarrapino, first practiced law together as students at Vermont Law School’s South Royalton Legal Clinic. When Wilschek testified on January 24 to Senate Finance about S.236 the longtime utility lawyer noted that “these are my opinions and I speak for myself rather than any client.” However, much of her testimony first was presented, at times verbatim, to a sympathetic audience in an October 2023 speech to the Renewable Energy Vermont (REV), the renewable power industry trade association.
In both testimony and speech, Wilschek shows her frustration with “NIMBYs” (Not In My Backyard) who have “captured” the energy siting regulatory process with their “self-interested and occasionally irrational opposition.”
“Despite the solid proof that global overheating is happening at a frighteningly fast and increasingly lethal pace and the transition to a renewable energy system is happening at a distressingly slow place, the Vermont legislature, executive branch, regional planning commissions and municipalities captured by small factions of NIMBYs have made it more difficult over the years to build renewable energy projects,” Wilschek said. “It is so bad in Vermont that Vermont’s opposition to renewable energy projects has been discussed in the national media. This from a New York Times opinion article by Ezra Klein in 2022: “The Sierra Club published a revealing report on how Vermonters were organizing against renewable power. The Sierra Club reported: ‘In 2012, Vermont had at least a dozen wind projects in development. Today, there are none.’ The article had to awkwardly note that the Vermont chapter of the Sierra Club had helped kill several of those projects.”
Whatever role ‘NIMBYism” played in stopping ridgeline wind turbine projects, it should also be noted that federal wind power project tax incentives were set to expire in 2012. Although eventually continued, the uncertainty of the federal incentives, coupled with local and statewide opposition, combined to discourage further wind turbine development. The last major wind power project in Vermont was built in Deerfield in 2017.
Vermonters for a Clean Environment (VCE) executive director Annette Smith told Senate Finance January 16 that her opposition “is about the fundamental right of Vermonters to participate in energy generation development proposals that affect their particularized interests as neighbors, and it proposes to eliminate aesthetics entirely from review of all types of energy generation development projects.
“This legislation is part of a national trend to strip local control for siting wind and solar energy, based on the premise that we must build out as much renewable energy as possible quickly in response to the climate crisis. With state level PUC permitting, Vermont already has state level control. Most states have been siting solar and wind through local zoning. This legislation presumes that neighbor objections are slowing renewable energy development in Vermont, and that solar panels and wind turbines everywhere are good and necessary and should be accepted regardless of the aesthetic impact.”
But that’s true because Vermont’s particular topography and competing values limit development, Smith said.
“Because of our terrain and topography and competing land use needs, Vermont has limitations on development. Lots of rock, water, steep slopes, an agricultural economy, forests especially valuable to address climate change, housing development, tourism, commercial and industrial uses compete for limited available buildable land. This is a fact we all need to recognize.”
S.236 is sponsored by Sens. Anne Watson, Martine Gulick, Tanya Vyhovsky, and Rebecca White – all strong supporters of renewable power and carbon reduction.
Smith is scheduled to testify about S.236 at 1:30 pm today in Senate Finance. She will be followed by Ben Edgerly Walsh, Climate & Energy Program Director of the pro-renewable energy advocacy group VPIRG, Ben Edgerly Walsh, Climate & Energy Program Director, VPIRG (1:45 PM), and Gregg Faber, Legislative Liaison for the Public Utility Commission.
The hearing may be viewed in person in Room 6 of the Vermont State House or via livestream. Links to other video testimony and discussion include:
Jan. 19: Friday afternoon, Peter Sterling of REV
Jan. 26: Friday afternoon, PUC staffer Gregg Faber
Jan. 31: Wednesday afternoon, citizen Alison Despathy
Feb. 1: Friday afternoon, Committee Discussion
BTW Vermonters – You are all a bunch of NIMBYs
by Alison Despathy
How dare you engage as stewards of your local communities and environments? It is unimaginable that you would care enough to keep an eye on proposed industrial developments in your local spaces and intervene when necessary. How could you?
This ‘NIMBYs are bad’ perspective was brutally shared by Joslyn Wilschek in the Senate Finance committee on Wednesday, January 24. Joslyn is a member of Renewable Energy Vermont (REV) and as a lawyer with the WILO Law Office, her firm helps industry, the solar industry in particular, navigate the Public Utilities Commission process to ensure their projects move forward.
Together, Wilschek and Senator Anne Watson wrote S.236, a bill which greatly favors the renewable energy industry and would severely limit Vermonters’ ability to take a fully engaged role in proposed energy projects that come to our communities. S.236 proposes to limit a neighbor’s engagement solely to traffic, public health and safety issues versus a broad scope of concerns that may arise in each unique proposal.
In her testimony, Wilschek stated “Nimbyism blocks, slows down and makes way more expensive the transition to the affordable electric grid that we need.” She also used the words classist, racist, and privileged in her testimony as she described how and why Vermonters are voicing their concerns.
I have come to detest the word NIMBY. This is derogatory and places concerned citizens and neighbors into a category of illegitimate and elitist interrupters versus invested neighbors with warranted concerns and insight that deserve attention.
Vermonters are the stewards of their land, environment and local resources. We have both a right and duty as local residents to ensure that proposed projects are beneficial, meaningful, low impact and that communities and environments are not taken advantage of by an industry out for profit.
Make no mistake, renewable energy is an industry and this must be acknowledged. REV is their representation and action arm at the statehouse. Regardless of how one feels about the role that the renewable energy industry should play in VT, there is an unprecedented abundance of money to be made with the Inflation Reduction Act subsidies heading this way. Many are chomping at the bit to get in on the game.
Renewable Energy Vermont (REV) is full force steamrolling S.236 to clear the path of obstacles including Vermonters who responsibly and legitimately question the environmental, economic or long term impacts of proposed renewable energy projects popping up in our communities.
A close look at Renewable Energy Vermont reveals that both their board and members ARE the renewable energy industry. Ranging from solar installers, electric companies, solar engineers, transportable power systems and battery services, lawyers, and investors, like VPIRG, REV works to promote the industry and increase avenues and profits for their renewable energy industry stakeholders.
By restricting a neighbor’s ability to engage, REV lobbyists are doing exactly what their board and members expect; ensuring that their products and services are prioritized at all costs. This is REV’s job and S.236 helps them to seal the deal and stifle necessary public engagement. It is paramount that legislators recognize this situation and work to ensure that the rights of Vermonters to steward and help guide special interest projects in their communities are upheld and protected.
The ability of neighbors and community members to hold a place at the table while proposed projects are assessed is critical to the responsible and meaningful siting of renewable energy projects. S.236 is the ultimate industry bill, a dream come true for developers and those in the renewable energy industry who would love to eliminate roadblocks such as Vermonters.
Vermont looks the way it does due to the engagement of residents who care about the environment, natural resources and scenic beauty of Vermont. This scenic beauty is Vermont’s true wealth. It signifies healthy, intact ecosystems, biodiversity and a love of nature–all of which are integral to the health of the state and Vermonters. Vermonters are bound together by a deep respect and appreciation for the environment and our desire to protect and steward our natural resources and wild spaces.
Not only does this natural scenic beauty feed our soul and recharge our spirit, it also drives tourism and is a fundamental component of our economy. Vermont towns and the state as a whole thrive due to a healthy tourist industry, which grows every year as many seek to escape to this natural beauty and all that Vermont has to offer.
As reported by the Agency of Commerce and Community Development, ACCD Vermont: “Tourism in Vermont is a $3 billion industry that supports over 30,000 jobs (over 10% of Vermont’s workforce).”
Last year at the Tourism Day at the Statehouse, the Vermont Chamber of Commerce shared that as the second largest economic contributor in the state, Vermont’s visitor economy brought 13 million annual visitors and an influx of 3.2 billion dollars with a 387.3 Million annual tax revenue.
Senator Watson and White should be ashamed of themselves for allowing S.236 to come forward. Maybe when you have been granted the Vermont Conservation Rising Star Award, the pressure is on to favor the renewable energy industry at all costs? Choosing special interest over Vermonters and our environments is the fundamental trend here. The Unaffordable Heat Act, now Act 18, fell in the same destructive category and yet again the same Senators are involved. Who do they really represent?
With any level of research, these Senators would have found that not only does this bill disrespect Vermonters, it is also unnecessary and detrimental. On February 6, during her testimony to Senate Finance, Annette Smith discussed this fact and shared the data to support this reality. VDC reached out for a summary of her testimony. Smith shared that the PUC data,
“Clearly identifies the fact that there is no justification or need for this bill. Neighbors, towns and regional planning commissions rarely comment, intervene, or participate in Public Utilities Commission (PUC) proceedings. In the few cases where the public engages in PUC cases, the process is intense, onerous and the developer’s attorneys are hostile to public participation. Nevertheless, public intervenors present valuable facts and information that are necessary for the PUC to make good decisions.”
Renewable Energy Vermont and industry lawyers like Wilschek are determined to create a path free from disruption for their renewable energy projects, including removing us “NIMBY” Vermonters.
Hopefully the Senators will see through Watson, White, VPIRG’s and REV’s special interest charade and acknowledge and respect the role Vermonters play in ensuring that our communities, local environments and natural resources are protected and have a voice in proposed development. As stewards, we must scrutinize and guide projects in our space, it is our responsibility.
Renewable power industry exploits poorest towns
The following is an open letter from Vermonters for a Clean Environment Executive Director Annette Smith to the Senate Finance Committee.
I need to respond to something Sen. Becca White was quoted as saying in this evening’s WCAX coverage of S.236.
She says lower-income communities are disproportionately selected for these projects because the current regulatory environment “essentially forces renewable energy to go into communities that might not have the financial ability to make the case that something is aesthetically not in line.”
For many years, VCE has gotten calls from neighbors about poorly sited solar projects. The neighbors knew their neighbors and talked to them. What they learned was that the solar companies were targeting people who were in financial distress, with unpaid back taxes or behind on mortgage payments. Our experience was that it was their neighbors who were concerned for people being exploited by the industry who helped to make sure that their neighbors were not being taken advantage of.
I have not heard anyone claim in testimony in your committee on this bill that concern about aesthetics is forcing solar arrays to go into communities that might not have the financial ability to make the case that something is not aesthetically in line. We have found that solar sites affect people of all income levels. I would like to see Sen. White produce some data and facts to support her claim.
However, it is a fact that almost all the big wind projects have been built in towns that have been on the list of the 10 poorest towns in Vermont. That is no accident. The aesthetics criteria has nothing to do with it. It is well known that the people of Lowell voted for the wind project to get the money to offset their property taxes. Poor towns have been targeted because they are vulnerable to monetary promises. Iberdrola’s effort in Windham and Grafton was the outlier, with two fairly well-off communities torn apart by the proposal, and they were offered money if they voted to approve the project. To their credit, they said no thanks. But the other communities targeted for industrial wind said yes, because they wanted the money.
Sen. White has turned this situation upside down. Aesthetics has nothing to do with it. We are dealing with an industry whose large profits are undisclosed and unknown, empowered to choose the cheapest sites and not work with community members or talk to neighbors. As you see from the data I presented, almost all solar arrays are approved, almost all without any opposition and most without any public input. The Vermont legislature has given the industry tax breaks that I hear about frequently as robbing our communities of money that has to be made up by other property owners. Sen. White is right that it is all about money, but that money is not being used to benefit the people who are affected by these projects. It is making a lot of money for a few people in the industry, and their non-profit organization supporters.
Thank you for listening.
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