Towns’ role in solar siting is debated as House takes up bill

WEYBRIDGE — Many Addison County residents will be closely watching the Vermont House as it fields a proposed law aimed at giving communities more input in the siting of solar arrays.
Bill S.230, endorsed by the state Senate last Thursday by a 22-3 tally, encourages communities to develop energy sections within their respective town plans that specify their solar siting priorities and specific locations within their borders where renewable energy projects could be sited.
Those municipal energy plans would ultimately have to pass muster with the Vermont Department of Public Service and be deemed compatible with the state’s green energy priorities. For example, the state has set a goal of deriving 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources by the year 2050.
The bill also instructs regional planning commissions to work with towns and the DPS to align goals with the state’s energy plan. It is a process inspired by a current pilot project involving the Bennington County, Two Rivers-Ottauquechee and Northwestern regional planning commissions, according to state Sen. Chris Bray, D-New Haven.
Bray, chairman of the Senate Natural Resources and Energy Committee, is hoping the bill gets communities more involved in renewable energy planning, for which they would be rewarded with more of a say in how such projects are processed by the Vermont Public Service Board. The PSB, a quasi-judicial state panel, has the power to authorize renewable energy projects through a process that bypasses local permitting review.
“The Vermont Department of Public Service … will work with regions and ask, ‘How will your region want to figure out what kind of energy projects you would do in your region that are supportive of those overall statewide goals that are in statute?’” Bray said in describing major provisions of S.230. “Then a region’s plan gets certified by the state.”
He was speaking Monday at the weekly Legislative Breakfast at the Weybridge Congregational Church.
As it stands, the PSB gives town plans “due consideration” when evaluating renewable energy project applications, according to Bray. Under S.230, the PSB would give “substantial deference” to towns’ certified energy plans that dovetail with the state’s renewable energy objectives.
“Many towns have felt that ‘due’ consideration was too little consideration, so we needed to knit together energy planning with land use planning,” Bray said, “and that’s at the heart of what S.230 does.”
Towns and regions that have plans certified as being supportive of the state’s overall energy goals, when they go before the PSB, will be given a “special level of influence” in the PSB’s evaluation of renewable energy proposals, according to Bray.
“The town plan will prevail unless there is clear and convincing evidence that there is a public good that surpasses the town plan,” Bray said. “Lawyers tell me that is a very high threshold for the PSB or an applicant to ever cross.”
Towns denied certification of their energy plans would be able to appeal to a panel of neutral attorneys within the Department of Public Service, according to Bray. That panel’s decision could be appealed to the Vermont Supreme Court.
Not everyone is pleased with S.230. Most notably, many New Haven residents and officials had been hoping for a bill that could give communities greater power in the siting of solar arrays. New Haven has had to deal with a large number of solar array proposals during the past few years.
New Haven recently passed a town plan that restricts the size of solar arrays, noted resident Jon Christiano at the Legislative Breakfast. But that town plan has not stopped New Haven from being inundated with applications from developers seeking to build numerous large solar arrays, according to Cristiano. Local residents resent having their local blueprint for growth overruled by a panel of appointed PSB officials, Cristiano said.
“The PSB basically ran over us like a steamroller,” Cristiano said. “I was really offended by that, because I feel that there is a steady erosion of the rights of the people … There has to be a stop to it, in my opinion.”
Addison resident Peter Briggs, a Republican candidate for one of Addison County’s two state Senate seats this fall, challenged Bray on the perceived merits of S.230. He said he agreed with an opponent’s assessment of S.230 as a “do-nothing” bill that does not take away the PSB’s current power in approving or denying renewable energy projects. That’s because the towns’ energy plans would be under the jurisdiction of regional planning commissions and/or the state of Vermont, he argued.
“Ultimately, if (the state) doesn’t like the plan because it’s going to hamper what they’ve been doing, they can just say, ‘You have to change it,’” Briggs said.
Bray argues S.230 is not about regulating the review process.
“The goal is not to take power away from the PSB; the goal was to empower towns and regions to do planning that is in their own best interest and in such a way that is in concert with the state’s plans,” Bray said.
Rep. Harvey Smith, R-New Haven, also weighed in on the bill. Smith is a lifelong farmer who has served many years on the Addison County Regional Planning Commission.
“One of the things that we are cognizant of is the fact the state wants to have more and more say in our local land use planning,” Smith said.
But he stressed that local plans shouldn’t be evaluated under identical guidelines.
“The needs of Chittenden County are substantially different than the needs of Addison County,” he said.
Bray said state, national and global energy policy has simply gotten to a point where it has to involve more people in order for it to work.
“If the towns want to influence how we build out renewables, the towns take on some of the responsibility for learning how all that works and doing the planning,” Bray said. “The only way to make something reflect your own priorities is to participate in the planning of it. We are really shifting who really needs to think about these things, from ‘the state takes care of it for us,’ to ‘now we’ll all think about it.’”
It’s a transition that Bray believes has been building for the past 40-50 years during which large, centrally located power stations have given way to smaller, scattered hydro, solar and wind energy facilities. And those scattered projects are generating some aesthetic concerns.
“The state’s energy planning program has historically not taken a look at land use impacts,” Bray said. “That has set up an unfortunate conflict between towns — that for decades have had the authority and obligation to do land use planning for themselves. When these projects — and what you hear most about is solar arrays — are being built, the towns are feeling like they have too little influence on how they are being built.”
New Haven resident Craig Zondag said the state should place more emphasis on the installation of rooftop solar panels, as opposed to the more aesthetically displeasing solar arrays.
“There’s an awful lot of flat and angled rooftops in the state of Vermont that could be used for solar application, where we wouldn’t have to be using agricultural land,” Zondag said.
Salisbury resident Heidi Willis said she would favor a new law that would require the developers of new buildings to make those new structures responsible for supplying a certain percentage of their own energy.
“It would keep us aware of the fact that electricity doesn’t just magically appear,” Willis said.
Rep Fred. Baser, R-Bristol, noted the state has a chance to dramatically enhance its green energy portfolio with hydropower, as opposed to solar array development. Vermont has a chance to buy, from TransCanada, numerous hydroelectric dams along the Connecticut River. The state balked at such an offer in 2005. Vermont could also increase the amount of power it purchases from Hydro-Quebec, he added.
Vermont currently derives 25 percent of its electricity from Hydro-Quebec, according to Bray. It has been as high as 32 percent.
“It might make a major contribution to the (renewable energy) goal the state has set for itself,” Baser said. “Those things might take some pressure that we have concerning renewable generation here.”
Rep. Dave Sharpe, D-Bristol, anticipates a passionate debate about S.230 in the House. It’s an issue that touches upon property rights and local control — both very important to Vermonters.
“It’s clear to me, and I think to us in the House, that while there is widespread support for renewable energy and there is a belief we need renewables instead of coal-fired power plants in our energy future — ‘It’s in your town, not mine,’” Sharpe said. “So it’s a conflict that is difficult to resolve, because the goal is similar — we want renewable energy, but we want someone else to suffer the consequences. The problem is, there is no easy way to keep the lights on … There are trade-offs and problems with every form of generating energy. So we need to look carefully at how we move forward as a state.”
Bray hopes that S.230 will survive the House review with its major provisions intact.
“Who knows what will happen on the House side,” Bray said. “There may be some change, but I think the bill is solid. I hope we pass it, and I am delighted to see we may have gotten ourselves to a situation where we can plan together and get out of ongoing conflict over the move to renewables.”
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected].

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