New legislation gives towns more say in where wind and solar energy projects are built as the state ramps up local energy production in pursuit of ambitious renewable energy goals.
But for towns to take advantage of their increased voice under Act 174, they need land use plans that are compatible with state energy goals, the most aggressive of which are to reduce energy consumption by a third by 2050 and to satisfy 90 percent of remaining energy needs with renewable sources.
The legislation gives regional planning commissions a leading role in certifying local plans as compatible with state goals. But before RPCs can assume that authority, they must first draft compliant regional energy plans.
Chittenden County Regional Planning Commission staff are making the rounds at town planning commission meetings this fall to solicit local input on the regional plan. A draft is expected by May.
Once the regional plan receives a “certificate of energy compliance” from the Public Service Department, towns can defer to the regional plan for local siting decisions or develop more specific local standards for certification by the CCRPC.
Currently, when the Public Service Board considers an application for a wind farm or solar panel array, it accepts local comments but is not obligated to apply them to its decision-making.
“There were so many Vermont communities that felt their comments weren’t being taken into consideration, that reform was needed,” Milton planning director Jacob Hemmerick said.
Act 174 requires the board give “substantial deference” to local concerns, provided the town has an energy plan consistent with state goals.
“Having substantial deference means that policies that are in the town plan on land use are going to be respected at a much higher degree than they are now,” CCRPC planner Emily Nosse-Leirer said.
The commission’s first step in drafting a regional plan is to map areas of the county where wind and solar development is and isn’t feasible, while balancing the imperative to find sites to support the state’s 90 percent renewable goal.
“We really hope there is room for us to both produce, as a county, a significant amount of the energy that we use and to respect the conserved land and the scenic viewsheds that towns have put into place,” Nosse-Leirer said at an Essex Planning Commission meeting last month.
The CCRPC has already mapped parcels suitable for wind turbines and solar arrays based on projected wind speed, topography and whether land is forested or cleared. Now it is using a process of elimination to exclude wetlands, riverbeds, roads, rare or irreplaceable habitats and flood zones. Regional planners are seeking municipal input on parcels that should be excluded.
Essex’s town plan was updated earlier this year and contains two restrictions for large-scale wind and solar facilities: They must be in commercial/industrial zones, and they can’t impact views identified as “most scenic” in a 2009 scenic protection manual developed by Smart Growth Vermont for Essex and Jericho.
According to community development director Dana Hanley, the town plan directs planners to develop additional siting standards, and that is a top priority. Siting standards will be included in the next update of the town plan, she said, and written into local zoning regulations before that.
Provided the CCRPC’s regional energy plan is certified by the state, and the Essex town plan is then certified by the CCRPC, Essex’s standards will be given substantial deference when it comes to proposed renewable energy projects in Essex.
In Milton, where the county’s only ridgeline wind farm is constructed atop Georgia Mountain, no renewable energy siting standards are included in the town plan, Hemmerick said. When the town plan is next updated in 2018, it will call for the standards, he said.
Until then, Milton will rely on the regional energy plan to establish its substantial deference provision in PSB proceedings, Hemmerick said.
Nosse-Leirer met with the Colchester Planning Commission on September 20. According to the meeting minutes, the planning commission will undertake updates to the town plan for future certificate of energy compliance.
Colchester’s current town plan, last updated in 2014, encourages wind turbines and solar panels but lacks siting guidance.
“We are in an information gathering mode right now to determine the best course of action for the town with regard to possible plan amendments or a separate energy plan and will look to continuing the dialogue with CCRPC,” planning and zoning director Sarah Hadd said.