Editorial: Vermont and its ‘unfriendly’ rep

Want to know how Vermont gets its reputation as being unfriendly to business?

Consider this example: Burlington-based Encore Renewable Energy has spent the better part of two-plus years working with Middlebury College on land it owns to build a large-scale solar farm on 30 acres off South Street in Middlebury. After clearing nearly every hurdle the Agency of Natural Resources has put before it, the project might be stalled for a year because of a single concern: jeopardizing grassland bird habitat. 

The issue is that spring mowing threatens the nesting habitat of grassland birds like the Bobolink. But Encore had previously argued that the wildlife habitat did not exist there because the “site is already the subject of unregulated and intensive agricultural use,” explaining that the farmer had always mowed that acreage each spring.

But the folks at ANR aren’t buying it. They’re threatening to force the renewable energy company to wait until next spring to conduct a field study on the project’s impact on the habitat before they propose a remedy.

Here’s the deal: Encore now admits they should have proposed a mitigation plan sooner; they thought they had a reasonable case of prior land use, but if the ANR rejects that argument, they need to shift gears. Recently, they did offer to donate funds to preserve 60 acres of grasslands in other parts of the Northeast (twice their 30-acre site), but, so far, the ANR says that proposal came too late and they may have to start the permitting process anew.

And that’s the catch. That’s where Vermont becomes “unfriendly.”

The reasonable thing to do would be to reopen the permit application, negotiate the company’s mitigation plan, and move the project forward. All bets are that the end result would be no different than what the state would agree to a year from now. The difference is that the delay will cost the company tens of thousands more dollars and even more in lost solar production.

We all know that Vermont has very tough environmental restrictions on land development and, for the most part, we agree with that general premise. Vermonters want to protect the environment. But in this case, the ANR policy directly conflicts with another state policy that also protects the environment: reducing its carbon footprint. One big way to do that is getting larger institutions like Middlebury College to build large solar farms to reduce its reliance on fossil fuels.

The obvious solution is to have state agencies like ANR change their mindset to try to resolve the problem and get projects done, not hone to rules as if the regulatory process is inflexible. In this instance, it certainly appears that appropriate mitigation measures could be adopted that would allow the state to avoid another example of not only being “anti-business,” but also totally unreasonable.

Angelo Lynn

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