Thursday April 11, 2013

MIKE FAHER

Brattleboro Reformer

WINDHAM -- Last year, town officials failed in their bid to stop construction of meteorological-testing towers that may pave the way for a major wind turbine project.

But two state senators have introduced a bill that, if approved, could ensure that wind turbines will not rise above Windham.

The bill requires that the state Public Service Board approve such a project only if it complies with Windham’s town plan. And Windham’s town plan bans commercial turbines.

Windham County Sen. Peter Galbraith says it’s a simple matter of prioritizing local control on a project that could have widespread impacts in Windham.

"I believe strongly that, as a matter of public policy, we ought to respect the wishes of a town where a major industrial project may take place," Galbraith said.

The Townshend Democrat was joined by fellow Windham County Sen. Jeanette White, a Putney Democrat, in introducing the bill, dubbed S.166. It was referred Tuesday to the Senate Finance Committee, on which Galbraith sits.

The bill comes more than three months after Atlantic Wind LLC, a subsidiary of international wind-power developer Iberdrola Renewables, received Public Service Board permission to erect three meteorological-testing towers -- two in Windham and one in Grafton. Depending on the wind information from those towers, Iberdrola could decide to pursue construction of Windham County’s first commercial turbine site.

Grafton town officials have not taken a position on the project. But Windham’s Selectboard and Planning Commission had fought hard against it. Officials argued that, because Windham’s plan specifically prohibits industrial-scale turbines, the state also should bar any wind-testing towers there.

That sparked a debate about the role that town plans play in the state’s energy permitting process.

The new Senate bill might become part of that debate. Targeted specifically and only at Windham, the legislation declares that the Public Service Board should "issue a certificate of public good for a wind-generation plant located in the Town of Windham only if the board finds that the plant conforms to the town plan."

The bill goes on to point out that, in a 2006 survey, 287 residents opposed construction of wind turbines in Windham. Only 15 supported the proposal.

Also, the legislation notes that Windham’s 2008 plan includes this sentence: "It is the policy of the Town of Windham that commercial wind energy systems are prohibited throughout all of town."

Gov. Peter Shumlin supports further wind power development, and he adamantly opposed a three-year turbine-construction moratorium that had been part of a Senate bill introduced in January.

But Shumlin also has said he supports the idea of towns having a say on whether turbines are built within their borders.

The Galbraith-White bill makes that point by quoting Shumlin from a June 2012 interview: "I have always said and I will always say I believe that no energy project should be built in a town in Vermont where the residents of that community don’t vote affirmatively to host it," Shumlin said. "We shouldn’t send them into towns that don’t want them."

Additionally, the bill points out that the state Department of Public Service -- which is a separate entity from the Public Service Board -- last year opposed any test towers in Windham due to "the clear mandate of the town plan."

An Iberdrola spokesman said the company could not immediately comment on the Senate bill.

Mary Boyer, who chairs Windham Selectboard, on Tuesday said she needed time to review the legislation before commenting on it. But Boyer also noted that there are other towns in Vermont dealing with the same concerns about turbines.

"We feel strongly that this is a statewide issue," Boyer said. "And we hope that will be included in this process."

Galbraith said the bill at this point was crafted as a direct response to the situation in Windham.

"This is about a town that we represent, and it’s about respecting its wishes," Galbraith said. "The sentiment in Windham is overwhelming."

But he said other towns could be included in the bill as it is debated and possibly amended.

And Galbraith argues that, despite the recent failure of the proposed turbine moratorium in a bill labeled S.30, there is widespread support for greater local control when it comes to energy projects.

"There are some senators who were opposed to some of the provisions in S.30 who nonetheless would be supportive of this," Galbraith said.