The solar energy facility proposed in Rutland Town throws a spotlight on how energy development has outpaced the regulations that are in place to protect the public interest. The project also shows the hazard towns face in protecting their interests if they fail to put in place zoning laws to help guide growth.
Electric power projects are not subjected to local review under Act 250 the way a shopping mall or a housing development would be. Instead, they come under the purview of the state Public Service Board. The board is charged with issuing a certificate of public good if it concludes that a power project is in the interest of the state as a whole. It may take into account local concerns, but no select board or district environmental commission has veto power.
That doesn’t mean that local sentiment has no influence. When developers proposed a wind project for a hill in western Vermont called Grandpa’s Knob, nearly universal opposition among local residents and select boards in the affected towns — Castleton, Hubbardton, Pittsford and West Rutland — persuaded the developers to back away.
The Rutland Town project calls for 9,762 solar panels on a parcel of land. Some residents have complained that the installation would be unsightly. The Public Service Board heard those complaints as hearings on the project began Wednesday.
Those concerned about the project are at a disadvantage, however, because the town has chosen over the years not to adopt zoning regulations. Town officials have long sought to foster development as a way to keep the tax rate low, with the result that significant growth has occurred there. Townspeople have seen zoning as anti-growth — a way to obstruct.
Now some residents want to obstruct, but they lack the tools. They are left only with a town plan, which ordinarily serves as a guide for zoning regulations that put into ordinances the goals of the plan. The town’s plan places the parcel in question in an industrial-commercial zone, even though up until about 15 years ago it was agricultural land. There was sparring at the PSB hearing about the meaning of that designation — whether it was merely meant to describe zones as they existed or was meant as a guide for the future. Customarily, zones laid out in town plans are meant to guide future development to appropriate sites in a town, which would suggest that a solar facility at this site ought to be acceptable.
The PSB, meanwhile, has found itself in the position of ruling on numerous projects that are far different from power projects of the past. Previously, the board had the job of considering large power projects — Vermont Yankee or a large contract with Hydro-Quebec. Each of these individual projects had a statewide impact, so it made sense to give review power to the PSB. Local interests were secondary.
Lately, Green Mountain Power has focused much attention on what is called distributed power: sources that are spread about the landscape — a residential rooftop, a farmer’s manure pile, a collection of wind turbines.
Distributed power projects, such as the dozens of recent solar installations, do not as individual projects necessarily have a statewide impact. They do, however, have a local impact.
Policymakers who see the need for solar development, and who understand that solar development in the aggregate has an important statewide impact, are probably reluctant to allow towns to interfere. But as long as local voices lack a means of expression, there will continue to be roiling discontent about energy development.
Local voices teach us something. The voices opposing the Grandpa’s Knob project taught us something. Also, we are able to judge, with the opposition in Rutland Town able to mount tenuous claims at best, that the solar project there is probably a good one. It will be a vexing policy problem in the coming years to find a way to allow local concerns to be addressed without allowing narrow self-interest to stymie energy development.
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