Mark Whitworth: 100 rebellion towns — now what?

Editor’s note: This commentary is by Mark Whitworth, who serves on the Newark Planning Commission and is the president of the board of directors of Energize Vermont.

By Valentine’s Day, the Vermont Energy Rebellion had spread to more than 100 towns.

The rebellion is a backlash against Vermont’s shove-it-down-their-throats policies that allow energy developers to ignore municipal plans and defy town governments. Towns have rebelled by placing energy siting restrictions in their town plans (they will be ignored), by opposing bad projects, and by adopting resolutions like the Rutland town resolution, which calls for the Legislature to give towns more authority in the siting of energy projects.

The rebellion started several years ago when towns banded together to oppose unwanted, environmentally destructive industrial wind projects. It was easy for Montpelier to ignore the rebellion when it involved only a few Northeast Kingdom towns. But, then the Legislature approved Gov. Shumlin’s RESET program (now Act 56), which established new energy goals and turned their achievement over to energy developers. “Solar towns” learned what the “wind towns” already knew: state law allows developers to bully them and Vermont’s state government thinks that is just fine.

When solar developers ignored Rutland Town’s energy-siting guidelines, the selectboard adopted the Rutland town resolution “to require compliance with appropriately developed municipal siting standards.” Other Vermont towns signed on to the resolution when they discovered that they were powerless in the Public Service Board’s abusive, legalistic and expensive energy siting process. Of Vermont’s 100-plus rebellion towns, 90 have signed a Rutland-style resolution. By the time you read this, more towns will have signed. (Visit EnergizeVermont.org/Rebellion)

The rebellion towns are located in 62 (of 104) House districts and are served by 90 (of 150) members of the Vermont House of Representatives. Nine of Vermont’s 13 Senate districts have at least 25 percent of their populations in rebellion towns. Five of those Senate districts have a majority of their populations in rebellion towns: Addison, Bennington, Essex-Orleans, Franklin and Rutland.

Town officials across the state promise to make the Vermont Energy Rebellion a big deal in the 2016 election.

In 2014, rebellion towns punished Gov. Shumlin for his energy policies. For example, in 2010, Shumlin won 55 percent of the votes Craftsbury cast for governor. In 2014, now in the shadow of GMP’s despised Lowell wind project, Shumlin won only 31 percent of Craftsbury’s vote. Statewide, the governor lost three points between 2010 and 2014, but in Craftsbury he lost 24 points. The story was similar in every town around the Lowell and Sheffield turbines. The anger about the projects has not subsided; the giant turbines provide a constant visual (and frequent auditory) reminder of environmental destruction and community disenfranchisement.

Collaboration produces good projects. Coercion produces litigation and sparks rebellion.

 

Now, we see similar levels of outrage in scores of additional towns about poorly sited solar. Towns are demanding that energy siting be regulated by Vermont’s proven land-use law, Act 250.

Gov. Shumlin has said that if towns have veto power, that no energy projects will be built. At his Jan. 20 press conference, Sen. John Rodgers responded by saying, “The governor doesn’t have much faith in Vermont’s people and her communities. I do.”

At the same press conference, Rutland Town Selectboard member Don Chioffi told “A Tale of Two Rutlands,” contrasting energy development in Rutland City and Rutland Town. Green Mountain Power collaborated with developers and Rutland City to site good projects in the right places. The result is the Solar Capital.

Mr. Chioffi, who favors properly sited renewables, described how Rutland Town’s offers to collaborate with developers were rebuffed. He told how developers have run roughshod over the town. The result is litigation at the Supreme Court of Vermont.

Collaboration produces good projects. Coercion produces litigation and sparks rebellion.

At a meeting in Irasburg, Northeast Kingdom residents discussed collaboration with Christine Hallquist, CEO of the Vermont Electric Cooperative. How can towns work with their utilities to promote good projects in the right places? Great idea, but towns are so busy fighting bad projects that they have no time to promote good ones.

The Irasburg discussion bore fruit in Newark where the planning commission (on which I serve) adopted a collaborative energy development resolution. The resolution contains two provisions. The first provision pledges the town’s cooperation with the utilities that serve it to promote energy projects in mutually agreeable locations within the town. The purpose of the projects would be to help the utilities improve system reliability and meet their state-mandated goals.

The second provision requests that the utilities discourage projects in Newark and any other Vermont town if those projects have not been planned collaboratively with the host municipalities.

Newark’s resolution is posted on the Energize Vermont website (EnergizeVermont.org/collaboration). It is available for download, editing, adaptation and improvement. Other rebellion towns may want to take control of their energy futures by adopting such a resolution. Maybe our state government will recognize that the leaders of our communities are responsible people who deserve to be treated like adults.

One thing is for sure, there is an election approaching and we have a lot of angry townspeople in Vermont. It doesn’t have to be this way — and perhaps after the election, it won’t be this way anymore.

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