Saturday January 26, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- Nearly 30 people stepped to a podium Wednesday to participate in the first public hearing held by the governor's energy generation siting policy commission.

And most wanted to address a controversial topic -- wind power and its place on Vermont's ridge tops.

As is usually the case when the topic of turbines arises, there were strong opinions and not much consensus.

"I cannot imagine ... why we would want to litter our ridgelines with wind power," said David Russell of Perkinsville.

But the next speaker, Jonathan Morse of Marlboro, recalled seeing large turbines for the first time while traveling on Route 9 in Bennington County.

"To me, that's a beautiful sight," Morse said.

It was the siting commission's first meeting outside Montpelier. The five-member body was created by Gov. Peter Shumlin in October to examine -- and possibly improve -- the way electric-generation projects are reviewed and permitted in Vermont.

That includes an inquiry into the public's role in that process.

But Commissioner Jan Eastman made it clear at the outset of the meeting that the commission is not charged with determining which types of energy generation are appropriate in Vermont.

"We're looking at electric generation and what the siting process should be," Eastman told the crowd at Brattleboro Union High School.

Nonetheless, wind supporters and opponents were vocal during the ensuing hearing.


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George Harvey of Brattleboro started the evening by expressing his concerns about global warming and its effects on the environment.

"We have to act on siting and establishing wind and solar as quickly as possible," Harvey said.

Next in line was John Robohm, a Jacksonville resident who lives near the Searsburg wind project and said he has installed smaller windmills on his property.

Robohm said the state must move past large-scale and "destructive" traditional power plants.

"I'm a very strong proponent . . . of distributed power generation," he said.

But the husband-and-wife team of Jim and Leslie Morey followed. They're based in the Town of Windham, which last year fought hard -- and unsuccessfully -- against the pending installation of wind-testing towers there.

Jim Morey believes a property situated near commercial-sized turbines loses 30 to 45 percent of its value. But he said such concerns largely have been ignored.

"I have seen virtually no discussion at all on the impact of wind farms on property values," he said.

He compared the effect on property values to the destruction of a hurricane. But in the case of wind-power development, he said, "this will not be an act of God. It will be an act of government."

Mary Durland of West Brattleboro was more concerned about the presence of large turbines on ridges. She said developers should be able to come up with smaller and more-efficient windmills.

"I would not like us to rush into the modification of our ridgelines," Durland said.

Two other Brattleboro residents, Paul Cameron and Michael Bosworth, argued in favor of renewable-energy development and said large wind projects can be sited appropriately.

"The state should prioritize locations where wind power makes the most sense," Bosworth said.

Two leaders of statewide environmental organizations also addressed the commission. And they took opposing sides on the wind issue.

Annette Smith of Vermonters for a Clean Environment said she understands and supports solar-power development. But she questioned whether turbines produce enough power and offset enough greenhouse-gas emissions to justify their impact.

"Is this cost-effective?" Smith asked. "Can we do better?"

For Charles McKenna, that answer is easy. The member of the Vermont Sierra Club chapter's executive committee said it is "urgent" that the state address climate change by moving forward with wind-turbine installation.

"Although it's a global issue, corrective action must be taken locally," McKenna said.

The commission also heard testimony from several opponents of a North Springfield biomass project.

One of those testifying about that plant suggested that the state's energy-siting process should be shifted so that projects undergo a rigorous Act 250 review before being considered by the Vermont Public Service Board.

But that didn't sit well with Eric Shenholm, a Saxtons River resident and a solar-power advocate.

"For small solar projects, the (permitting) process is already cumbersome enough," Shenholm said.

Eastman said she and her fellow commissioners will review and assimilate a large amount of public comment as they produce draft recommendations by late March. A final report is due by April 30.

"It will be interesting," she said. "And we all come at it from a different perspective."

In addition to Eastman, who is past president of the Snelling Center for Government and former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources, the commission members are:

-- Gaye Symington, executive director of the High Meadows Fund and former speaker of the Vermont House of Representatives.

-- Tom Bodett of Dummerston, a Selectboard member and municipal representative to the VT Enhanced 911 Board.

-- Louise McCarren, former chairwoman of the Vermont Public Service Board.

-- Scott Johnstone, executive director of the Vermont Energy Investment Corporation and former secretary of the Vermont Agency of Natural Resources.

More information is available at the commission's website, http://sitingcommission.vermont.gov.

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