The Shumlin administration is trying to do something about community dissatisfaction with the state’s process for approving electric power projects.
Everyone pays lip service to local control, but the local voice has no specific place in the decision-making process by state regulators in approving power projects. So Gov. Peter Shumlin has established a new commission to study the question of who should have a say on power projects and how that say should be heard.
Vermonters have become accustomed to a prominent role in ruling on major development projects. Under Act 250, the state’s land use law, plans for a new mall or housing subdivision or factory must be submitted to one of nine district environmental commissions, made up of local citizens, who rule on whether a project is in compliance with 10 criteria relating to impact on the environment and local communities. One of the criteria is whether a project is in compliance with a town or regional plan.
But electric power projects do not come under the purview of Act 250 or its process of local review. Instead they go to the state Public Service Board. The public interest is represented by the state Public Service Department and its commissioner, who make recommendations to the PSB.
Recent controversies over wind power have sharpened focus on this process. In Lowell, Green Mountain Power obtained approval from Lowell residents, who will benefit from revenue and other payments to the town. But residents in nearby towns have mounted a stubborn campaign of opposition to what they see as the desecration of Lowell Mountain. The PSB approved the project, which was modified by GMP to take into account concerns by the Agency of Natural Resources about wildlife habitat.
A new wind proposal for Grandpa’s Knob, affecting the towns of Pittsford, Hubbardton, West Rutland and Castleton, has provoked nearly unanimous opposition in the four towns. Yet residents are worried that their voices will not be heard.
Public Service Commissioner Elizabeth Miller has expressed a commitment to listening to local residents and taking local views into account as the Public Service Department forms its recommendation for the PSB. And Shumlin himself has said he would not force a power project on a town that doesn’t want one. Nevertheless, local views do not have the backing of the law the way that Act 250 provides a vehicle for local concerns on non-power projects.
The progress made on wind projects in the state, combined with ever fiercer opposition, has brought Shumlin to the point where he decided he needed to appoint a commission. His friendliness to wind projects, especially the project in Lowell, has roused the ire of environmentalists, leading to the write-in candidacy of activist Annette Smith for governor.
The new commission could end up as a cover for Shumlin, but the makeup of the commission suggests the question ought to come in for serious thought. The commission is made up of five members appointed by Miller. They are Scott Johnstone, former secretary of natural resources; Gaye Symington, former House speaker; Louise McCarren, former chairwoman of the PSB; Jan Eastman, former president of the Snelling Center for Government and former secretary of natural resources; and Jim Matteau, former director of the Windham Regional Commission.
Critics of the present approval process say it is cumbersome and does not allow for adequate public participation. Miller and the commission members she has appointed are all serious public figures who are not likely to permit the commission to be used for window dressing. The appointment of the commission offers an opportunity to update a process that is becoming all the more crucial as we enter a new era of smaller, dispersed energy sources. The commission also ought to provide reassurance for Vermonters that the Shumlin administration does not want to ride roughshod over the communities where new energy projects are to find their homes.
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