VERNON — The developers of a natural gas power plant proposal say it needs the community's support before they invest time and money in the project.
At the March 1 town meeting, voters will weigh this non-binding question: "Do you support a gas-fired electric generation plant in Vernon?"
Anything less than a 51 percent vote of support would likely lead the developers to stop talks in Vernon.
"To me, this has always been about the community," said Don Campbell, who represents the Vermont-based Stonewall Energy Advisors LLC, which is evaluating the potential project. "It all comes back to the community. If it's not the right thing, then that's really all. It's only a question."
Early on, the group approached the project wanting community consensus and buy-in, Campbell said.
The town's Planning Commission also thought it wise to get voters' input, according to Bob Spencer, the chairman.
After drafting the question to put to voters, the Planning Commission sent it to the Selectboard, Spencer said.
The question was evaluated at a Selectboard meeting where there was debate on whether the town should wait for a site to be selected first.
"The feeling was we might not know about a site for quite a few months," said Spencer. "We wanted to do this at Town Meeting because we have Australian ballot and election for officers."
The vote will be held apart from regular Town Meeting business.
"We're going to have our own separate rooms, our own table, our own volunteers and we're going to hand out the ballot as well as explanation," said Spencer. "And we'll be there to answer questions."
Absentee ballots already have been mailed. A cover letter explains that a yes vote signals support for continuing to move forward, Spencer said.
A positive vote won't necessarily mean the plant will be built.
"It just means the Planning Commission will continue to investigate a facility," said Spencer.
"If it's a no vote, the Planning Commission will say, 'It's done. We're not interested in any more meetings to discuss it.' A developer could still go ahead without the Planning Commission doing anything."
Developers say they don't want to start the process, which involves at least two years of permitting plus millions of dollars worth of financing, if the community is not receptive to the idea.
"If there's significant local opposition, it makes it difficult to get some of these permits," Spencer said. "And it's risky for a developer financially because you can spend a tremendous amount of money on an air permit with engineer studies and end up not getting it."
Campbell hopes to make Wednesday's Planning Commission meeting at 6:30 p.m. at Town Offices, where the commission will discuss how to approach voters with the question.
A Feb. 3 revelation that the Miller Farm property is being eyed as a site for the plant might help add some clarity, according to Campbell.
"It would eliminate the need for any overhead electric transmission towers and would make an awful lot of sense," he said. "Between that and the concept of how we stand on this as a community, I hope there's enough in front of the voters. I'm available to answer questions if need be."
Voter support would prompt Campbell to bring in investors, technology providers and engineers. They would look at things like requirements around analysis and permitting. More information would then become available.
Since the public meetings, other parties in the surrounding area have come forward with other sites for a plant, Campbell said. But his "primary interest," he said, is in figuring out whether a gas-fired power plant could connect to the grid to the benefit of the town and the state of Vermont.
The Planning Commission, too, has been approached by two other development teams with ideas for a gas plant, said Spencer. But there have been no meetings with anyone besides Campbell's group.
"I think a lot of developers would want to check the local community's support," Spencer said. "So waiting until the March 1 vote results are out, we think, is a good idea."
Since the town does not own any property being discussed, the town's Planning Commission is acting as an advisory group.
"Vernon has no zoning. Even if we did, most power companies are exempt from zoning under Section 248," said Spencer, referring to the certificate of public good process handled by the Public Service Board in which the commission would be a party to.
Spencer expects the commission will discuss the Miller Farm property. But the main point of the next meeting will be about driving home what the vote means.
Spencer said he's proud of the public education process and how the commission has handled it.
Still, concerns around heath and safety have been raised and need evaluation, Spencer said. He said he is keeping "a very open mind personally" as residents bring up concerns around carbon dioxide, children's health and other particulars. The town's elementary school is near Vermont Electric Power Co.'s switchyard to which the gas plant would connect. Also, child day care centers and the Miller's organic dairy farm are nearby.
"Essentially there's an open slot at the substation because there is no longer a link between the substation and [Vermont Yankee]," said Kerrick Johnson, who handles communications for Vermont Electric.
Johnson said the first step in the process would require the gas plant developer to apply for a connection to the electric grid with ISO New England. ISO New England would collect an application fee and conduct an analysis.
ISO New England would run the study and Vermont Electric would participate by offering information and computer modeling to determine the impact of connecting a new energy generator. Johnson said they would look at location, size and amount of fuel needed.
"As the transmission operator in Vermont, we have a federally driven obligation," he said. "We support all forms of energy. We're open to all."
Vermont Electric's concern would be reliability. Its role would be collaborative with developers agreeing on the project's scope and form of connection.
"All [that] would be well established before starting the work," said Johnson.