Wednesday January 16, 2013

WINDHAM -- An ongoing wind turbine debate in the Town of Windham has prompted a statewide organization to rethink its stance on energy projects.

The Vermont League of Cities & Towns is asking the state Public Service Board to give local concerns much more weight when considering energy developments including wind turbines or biomass facilities.

The Montpelier-based organization also is asking the board, when considering such projects, to hold public hearings in affected communities.

The vote by the league’s board came just six days after Windham Selectboard Chairwoman Mary Boyer wrote a letter asking the organization to take a more active role in energy permitting.

"It actually was the best example of concerns that our members have been expressing on this issue," said Steven Jeffrey, the league’s executive director.

Jeffrey said the league last year had considered a similar measure. But it failed by one vote, and the organization had remained mum on energy-siting issues.

Meanwhile, Windham officials have been fighting against the proposed construction of two meteorological testing towers in the town by a subsidiary of international wind power developer Iberdrola Renewables.

The Public Service Board ultimately granted permission for the testing towers, which could -- depending on the weather data they produce -- serve as a precursor to Windham County’s first commercial turbines.


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Boyer, in her Jan. 4 letter to the league, noted Windham’s small size -- 550 properties, 320 registered voters and a budget of about $600,000 -- and a lack of resources to represent itself in the complex energy-permitting process.

"The financial, emotional and societal costs to small towns are becoming more and more obvious, and the fight is being carried on by those with the least resources to fight it," Boyer wrote. "Even more importantly, one of Vermont’s most cherished values -- municipal authority -- is in serious jeopardy."

Boyer did not ask the league to condemn the wind project. Rather, she requested stronger advocacy from a group that assists municipal officials statewide.

"We believe that, without taking a stand for or against Big Wind, the VLCT has an important role to play in representing the interests of small and large communities in the legislature’s discussion of Vermont’s siting of industrial wind development projects," Boyer wrote. "We sincerely hope you will change the VLCT’s policy of remaining silent on this issue and assume that role."

Jeffrey said such concerns are not new. But they seem to be more numerous: The league, in its most recent legislative report, said municipalities increasingly are intervening in Public Service Board reviews of wind, biomass and electric transmission projects.

Jeffrey said Boyer’s letter "crystallized" that debate and prompted the league’s board to act.

In a recap of the debate, league officials wrote that they considered the organization’s responsibility to towns and cities. But they also factored in "the potential divisiveness of the issue of renewable generation and the overall goal of increasing Vermont’s renewable-electricity generation."

The league also noted that a three-year moratorium on turbine development has been proposed in the state Senate.

Ultimately, the league’s board decided to ask that the Public Service Board "be required to give substantial consideration to municipalities." That stance includes four specific requests:

-- Hold hearings in municipalities affected by energy projects.

-- Include all local decisions about such projects in the Public Service Board’s docket.

-- Require the service board to "formulate areas of inquiry based on concerns raised in the local hearing process."

-- Requiring that "any decision on the project address the local concerns."

Jeffrey summed it up this way: "There needs to be an awful lot more consideration . . . . for the local concerns."

Jeffrey acknowledged that the governor’s Energy Generation Siting Policy Commission is taking a close look at energy-project permitting and the public’s role in it.

But that commission’s report still is months away.

With the state’s Legislature having reconvened last week, "we did believe it was necessary for us to take a position (now)," Jeffrey said.

Mike Faher can be reached at mfaher@reformer.com or 802-254-2311, ext. 275.