- Associated Press - Wednesday, March 25, 2015

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) - Key Vermont lawmakers are saying that with about six weeks to go in the this year’s Statehouse session, it’s likely legislation to retool the way Vermont sites solar, wind and other renewable energy projects will take until next year to see action.

The comments from Sen. Christopher Bray, D-Addison, and Rep. Tony Klein, D-East Montpelier, chairmen of the Senate and House Natural Resources and Energy committees, respectively, followed a Statehouse hearing Tuesday that drew impassioned comments from Vermont residents on both sides of the renewable energy debate.

Some of the more than 100 people who attended argued that climate change demands aggressive development of renewables; others complained that the state’s siting process effectively shuts out many residents.

Klein said he expected that before lawmakers adjourn in May, the House would pass a bill to create incentives to develop renewable energy projects in gravel pits, environmentally damaged “brown fields,” and similar less valuable sites, as opposed to the former farm fields that in many towns have drawn complaints of spoiled views.

But Klein acknowledged there likely would not be time to get the bill through the Senate, and Bray said he expected a special committee to be appointed to study siting issues during the summer and fall and prepare legislation for action next winter.

Dozens spoke before the combined hearings of the House and Senate committees. People employed in the industry talked up the need to address climate change and move away from burning fossil fuels to generate electricity, and argued that the siting process, now overseen by the state Public Service Board, was onerous enough and did not need toughening.

Suzanne Sawyer of New Haven, said her husband, a retired dairy farmer, recently had passed away, and that devoting some of her property to a solar power project was enabling her to stay on the farm.

“It allows our farm, which has been in the family for over 100 years … to stay with me and my children,” said Sawyer.

Others said they didn’t want to focus on energy or climate change or economics, but on the ability of Vermont’s towns to keep their rural character preserved from what some said they see as an industrial blight.

“What we’re talking about here is a political problem, a constitutional problem, and one of the most basic of our ‘home rule’ conflicts,” said Donald Chioffi of Rutland Town. He presented to lawmakers a petition signed by 37 towns saying “legislative changes are needed to afford Vermont municipalities a greater say in the approval and siting of renewable energy projects.”

Many of the speakers on Tuesday indicated they had been involved in the debate over energy siting for years and would continue their involvement even if the Legislature makes no changes this year.

Annette Smith of Danby, founder of the group Vermonters for a Clean Environment, contrasted the Public Service Board siting process unfavorably with Vermont’s Act 250 law, which regulates other types of development. She said the Act 250 process is much more welcoming to citizen involvement.

Act 250 has an elaborate system allowing private citizens a say in development projects, Smith said. Energy projects are regulated separately, through the Public Service Board. Smith and several other speakers said the process required them to hire lawyers and costly experts and still did not produce what was in their view a fair result.

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