Opinion: Consider farming when siting green energy

This week’s writer is Roger Allbee, a former Vermont Secretary of Agriculture, who was chair of the Working Lands Coalition of the Vermont Council on Rural Development that led to the creation of the Working Lands Program. Allbee was a contributing author to the book “The Vermont Difference, Perspectives from the Green Mountain State” by the Vermont Historical Society and the Woodstock Foundation.
Vermont’s environmental heritage has been defined over time, and today is being challenged by goals to have the state have 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by 2050. A recent special report in Vermont Digger, “Tax breaks drive Vermont’s solar gold rush,” indicates that solar developers have their eyes on Vermont due to these additional tax breaks or incentives. Can this expansion of solar and even wind on our ridgelines be compatible with articulated environmental and land use goals of the past?
It is reasonable and necessary to step back and better define how these energy goals can be compatible with existing and past polices pertaining to the environment and land use. A brief review of history is in order.
In 1847, then Vermont Congressman Perkins Marsh gave a speech to the Rutland Agricultural Society on agricultural conditions in New England, and the need for better resource management and active efforts for restoring the land. The early settlers to Vermont had stripped the forests leading to severe erosion and loss of soils and water degradation. Marsh’s ideas were said to be radical at the time, but in the end led, many suggest, to the establishment of the conservation movement in the U.S.
Since then there have been numerous efforts to better define our state’s commitment to the wise use of our land and water resources. In 1927, the Vermont Commission of Country Life looked at and studied every facet of Vermont life. One of the recommendations was that the state take over, as rapidly as possible, the summits of the principal mountains for park and forestry purposes. Also, it was stated that in the larger development of recreational resources, which may be expected, “care should be taken to avoid features that disfigure the landscape and are an offense to good taste.” Recreation or tourism was then seen as the most promising opportunity for business growth into the future.
The 1960s’ growth of ski areas and connected recreational housing came into conflict with some of the articulated goals of the 1927 report relative to activities that disfigure the environment. In 1969, Republican Gov. Deane Davis appointed Arthur Gibb of Weybridge to chair the Governor’s Commission on Environmental Control, often referred to as the Gibb Commission. Many public hearings were held, and the commission’s work resulted in the passage of Act 250, Vermont’s pioneering land use law. This law has procedures in place to protect our states most productive soils.
Over time and since the passage of this pioneering land use law, various studies and programs have been created to address Vermont’s commitment to its wise use of land and water resources. In the late 1970s then Gov. Richard Snelling and the Vermont Legislature passed the Current Use Tax Program as a way to better preserve farmland and forestland in the state. In 1986, “a coalition of affordable housing, conservation and historic preservation advocates concerned with the rapid change in the character of the Vermont landscape approached the state legislature with a plan to form a unique quasi-state agency.”
The Vermont Housing and Conservation Board was established by the Legislature in 1987, with the “dual goals of creating affordable housing for Vermonters, and conserving and protecting Vermont’s agricultural land, forestland, historic properties, important natural areas, and recreational lands that are of primary importance to the economic vitality and quality of life in the State.” More recently the 2012 Legislative session brought with it a renewed commitment to Vermonters’ values (over 97 percent of Vermonters value the working landscape, according to studies), by passing the Working Landscape Initiative.
Today our land use polices relative to renewable energy siting of solar and wind are in conflict as the Public Service Board arguably does not take into consideration issues specifically related to land use as does the Act 250 process, which is time tested. Our prime and productive farmland is in very limited supply in Vermont. We are seeing a renaissance of agriculture in our state, with many new farms and products from the land.
Yes, Vermont’s open space and productive agricultural land is a prized asset that defines our state and its people, just as it has over many decades. A rational policy approach is needed that includes Act 250 as power siting today is much different than in the past when it dealt with fixed generation facilities like hydro, coal and wood burning generation, and nuclear power. It is time for the legislature and policy leaders to rectify this imbalance.

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