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Sen. Bray calls for group to propose changes to utility siting process

SHOREHAM — Addison County State Sen. Chris Bray, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources & Energy Committee, will seek legislative approval for a “working group” that would study the manner in which the Vermont Public Service Board reviews and approves energy projects, and then propose ways to improve that process.
The New Haven Democrat early this week confirmed his plans, which he created in response to public frustration swirling around the unilateral authority the PSB enjoys in permitting energy projects, including solar arrays, natural gas pipelines, electricity transmission lines and wind turbines.
Some Addison County residents and officials have voiced frustration that when deciding on a utility application the PSB considers — but does not have to honor — municipal town plans and local zoning rules.
Nowhere has this frustration been more pronounced than in New Haven, which has become something of a hub for solar farms. The community also hosts a disproportionate number of large utility towers and electricity transmission lines from Vermont Electric Power Co.’s Northwest Reliability Project.
The PSB’s recent review of Vermont Gas’s Phase I and II natural gas pipeline proposals drew many citizens to public hearings, and most opposed the pipeline. Vermont Gas ultimately withdrew its Phase II application; the PSB approved Phase I from Colchester to Middlebury and Vergennes, which is now under construction (see story, Page 1A).
It was around a month ago that Bray hosted a hearing at the Statehouse on how the PSB evaluates energy projects, a hearing that drew comments and calls for the PSB review process to be more inclusive.
“Regardless of the type of fuel you are talking about, how a project comes into a community is important,” Bray said. “How communities are engaged in the process is important.”
Bray’s committee has spent virtually all its time since January focusing on a major “clean water bill” targeting the state’s waterways, and Lake Champlain in particular. That bill has now been voted out of committee, clearing the decks for Senate Natural Resources & Energy to focus on other matters during the final weeks of the 2015 session.
While the crossover deadline has come and gone for bills to pass from one chamber to another, Bray believes his proposal for a working group can still proceed. The proposal could be attached to a current, active bill, could be blended into a bill dealing with an energy topic, or could be dealt with as a standalone bill if legislative leaders choose to waive the crossover deadline rules.
Bray is deliberately calling for a working group, as opposed to a summer study committee. The latter groups, he said, often culminate in reports that can be shelved.
The working group on the PSB review process would be comprised of stakeholders who would be charged with, among other things, proposing draft legislation to change the current process. The 2016 Legislature would then take up the working group’s proposals next January.
The working group would be expected to take a careful look at the PSB’s current powers with respect to eminent domain, rights of way, solar projects, and local input, among other things.
Bray expects the group would define how the “public good” should be measured in project applications, and also examine the legal costs borne by those affected by energy projects under PSB review, and whether those affected parties might be entitled to legal assistance.
The working group is not being tasked with scrapping the current PSB review process, according to Bray.
“It would be an enhancement of what we do, not starting from scratch,” Bray said.
He is hopeful that his colleagues will support his call for the working group.
“I’m an optimist,” Bray said. “I feel when we engage people in the right manner, we always do better work.”
Reporter John Flowers is at johnf@addisonindependent.com.

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