Saturday March 30, 2013

BRATTLEBORO -- It started as a moratorium, but it ended as a study.

That's the short-story version of a bill that initially had proposed a three-year ban on development of large-scale wind turbines in Vermont.

Several amendments later, the bill -- as approved by the state Senate Thursday -- calls for a study of wind power's impacts and the manner in which turbines are approved. But it makes no immediate changes to a controversial permitting process that some claim overlooks local interests.

Nonetheless, advocates for a wind moratorium say they're happy to at least have witnessed a serious discussion about turbines and ridgelines.

"We feel that there's a great deal of momentum in Vermont to look at the issue more realistically, and that's a good thing," said Mary Boyer, Selectboard chairwoman in the town of Windham.

"We're not disheartened," Boyer added. "We're disappointed."

Windham officials last year unsuccessfully fought a proposal to build meteorological-testing towers in the town.

The state Public Service Board in December granted permission for two such towers in Windham and another in Grafton. Depending on the data they produce, those towers could lay the groundwork for Windham County's first commercial wind farm.

Grafton's Selectboard has not taken a position on the project, but a citizens' group there has tried to organize opposition to large-scale wind turbines.


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Spurred by pockets of wind-power opposition throughout the state, two senators -- Bennington County Democrat Robert Hartwell and Caledonia County Republican Joe Benning -- in January proposed a turbine moratorium and called for further study of such projects.

The effort received support from Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith, a Townshend Democrat who said all "affected communities" -- not just those hosting proposed turbines -- should sign off on wind projects.

Galbraith has argued that commercial turbines offer relatively little environmental benefit.

"We are basically destroying our ridgelines for no environmental gain," he said in a January interview.

But the proposed moratorium was panned by eight environmental groups including the Sierra Club Vermont Chapter, Vermont Public Interest Research Group and the Conservation Law Foundation.

Also, Gov. Peter Shumlin -- noting that he already had appointed an Energy Siting Commission to study permitting concerns -- said he would not support a moratorium on renewable-energy development.

Climate change, Shumlin argued, is a far bigger problem than wind-turbine development.

There apparently was similar sentiment in the Senate. About a month ago, Galbraith said the moratorium provision had been removed from the bill.

In its place, however, was a requirement that wind projects -- at least for the short term -- undergo a full review under the state's land-use law, Act 250.

Galbraith had said that proposal "greatly enhances the environmental criteria" and requires that turbine development conform with town plans -- a major sticking point in Windham, where the town plan bans commercial wind power.

But on Tuesday, the bill again was amended to eliminate the Act 250 provision, and advocates for renewables breathed a sigh of relief. VPIRG administrators dubbed the vote "a major victory for Vermont's clean-energy future."

Of course, some who had backed a moratorium had a much different reaction.

"It was gutted, there's no doubt about it," Boyer said.

In place of permitting changes, the legislation now calls for a Department of Public Service "assessment" of several factors in renewable-energy development.

That includes a review of "the appropriateness and economic efficiency of investing or encouraging investment in renewable electric-generation plants to reduce Vermont's greenhouse gas emissions in comparison to other measures to reduce those emissions such as transportation-fuel efficiency and thermal and electric-energy efficiency."

The department also is supposed to assess the permitting process. That includes a look at "methods to strengthen the role of local and regional plans in the siting-review process for electric-generation plants."

The assessment also is supposed to explore several issues relating specifically to wind turbines and meteorological-testing towers:

-- Health impacts.

-- Sound emissions "as they affect public health and quality of life."

-- Setback requirements.

-- "The impacts on the environment, natural resources and quality of life" of turbines already in existence or under construction.

-- Economic and environmental costs and benefits "including the value of any ecosystem services affected by them."

A report on that assessment would be due by Nov. 15. Among other recommendations, the report also is supposed to establish a way to measure wind turbines' impact on property values "and to propose a method to compensate the property owner for the loss in value" if there is any.

On Friday, Galbraith argued that the significance of that assessment and report should not be downplayed. Armed with information from the study, lawmakers could revisit the wind-power legislation in their next session starting in January.

"Then, we have our bite at the apple," Galbraith said.

He also pointed out that the bill still contains a provision banning wind turbines -- or any other commercial development -- on state land. Galbraith initially had introduced that regulation as part of another bill, and he said it offers "considerably greater protections" for state parks and other publicly owned parcels.

Windham County's other senator, Putney-based Democrat Jeanette White, voted in opposition to further turbine regulations. But Liisa Kissel, who started a group called Friends of Grafton's Heritage to oppose turbine development in that town, said White "has agreed to a conversation on the topic of industrial wind development with local residents."

White confirmed that, pledging to sit down with wind opponents sometime soon.

"I'm not adverse to listening to their concerns," she said.

Kissel was in Montpelier in January when the turbine moratorium was proposed, and she again was present for Tuesday's Senate debate.

"I was gratified to witness our senators engage in a four-hour debate about the energy-permitting process and to see the closeness of the vote, while I am disappointed about the final outcome," Kissel said in an e-mail to the Reformer.

Kissel echoed Boyer in saying the discussion itself was productive.

"The issue of large-scale industrial wind in Vermont has now been foregrounded in a healthy way," Kissel said. "There is strong bipartisan support for giving towns more say in their local land use. Similarly, many senators talked about doing ‘renewables the right way.' We still have a bill, although in a stripped-down form."

That bill received final Senate approval on Thursday. It now goes to the House.

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