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Towns Take On Act 174, Vermont's New Energy Siting Law, With Some Trepidation

Toby Talbot
Municipalities that re-write their town plans in acccordance with the state's new energy siting law would have more of a say over energy projects, like the wind project on Lowell Mountain, shown here.

Vermont wants to get 90 percent of its energy from renewable sources before the year 2050. And towns across the state are starting to think about where all those renewable energy projects will be built as they begin the planning process required under Act 174, Vermont's new energy siting law.

Windham Regional Commission Director Chris Campany kicked off a meeting in Brattleboro this week to help planning commission members from around southeastern Vermont understand the new energy siting law.

"I'm sure a lot of focus has been on, what do we not want?" he told the crowd of about 25. "But what we'll be encouraging you to do is really focus on what do you want, and where should these projects go."

Meetings like the one in Brattleboro are happening all over the state, as regional planning commissions try to help towns get through a pretty technical and involved process.

Under the new law, if towns want a stronger voice when the Public Service Board is making a decision on an energy project, then they'll have to re-write their town plans to meet the regional and state energy standards.

And that, Campany says, will force some towns to make some tough decisions about development.

"Frankly, if you look at a lot of town plans, your land use policies are kind of wishy-washy," he says. "And to meet these standards, they're probably not going to be as wishy-washy any more. You're going to have to take a stand on where [you] feel development is appropriate."

Act 174 says the state's regional planning commissions each have to come up with new energy siting standards that the local towns then have to adopt in their plans.

Some small towns are concerned that the mapping and data analysis is far too much to expect from local planning boards, which are largely made up of volunteers.

And there's been some push-back, especially from some of the smaller towns. They're concerned that the mapping and data analysis is far too much to expect from local planning boards, which are largely made up of volunteers.

John Whitman is from Readsboro, and he came to the meeting in Brattleboro to learn more about energy siting.

Whitman says the new law puts a lot of expectations on the regional planning commissions.

And even though towns are being told they have options, Whitman says that by the time energy plans are written there really won't be much room for local input.

Credit Howard Weiss-Tisman / VPR
Windham Regional Commission Director Chris Campany leads a a meeting in Brattleboro on Act 174, Vermont's energy siting law.

"It's a little bit top-down. I'm more in favor of local control," says Whitman. "The state gave money to the regional commissions, and so they're writing to the statement of work the state gave them. And now the towns will either accept the regional plans or go through a process of trying to make them personalized a little more to the towns, and that's a big burden on the towns to do that."

Addison County Sen. Chris Bray helped write the new energy siting law. In a separate interview, Bray said he understood that there might be some confusion and apprehension among some towns as this complicated procedure gets underway.

But he wants to encourage towns to get on board now, early in the process, to make sure they're ready when energy projects are proposed for their region.

"We don't see the benefits yet," Bray says. "We're in that phase of working, and people haven't seen a town plan that's been certified function at the Public Service Board yet. So I'm asking people to have some faith that their own town planners and regional planners are going to look out for their own best interests and that we will move forward together towards a clean energy future  that we absolutely have to have."

"We don't see the benefits yet ... I'm asking people to have some faith." — Sen. Chris Bray

This is a brand new process, and no one really knows what it will mean when a town with an approved plan sits before the Public Service Board during an energy project hearing.

And Karen Horn with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns says planning commissions are having a hard  time taking on these town plan re-writes on faith alone.

"It's still an open question as to how is the Public Service Board going to treat that," Horn says. "We're in uncharted territory at that end of the process, if you will. So you're asking municipalities and regions to do a whole lot of work for what is a somewhat uncertain end."

The state's regional planning commissions are supposed to have their regional plans done this spring.

The 11 regional planning commissions will share  a $300,000 grant to work with  towns that choose to take on the re-writes.

Correction 12/08 7:20 p.m. The 11 regional planning commissions will share a $300,000 grant. An original version of this story had the wrong amount of money available to help towns.

Howard Weiss-Tisman is Vermont Public’s southern Vermont reporter, but sometimes the story takes him to other parts of the state.
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