Review from the local to state to national level
By Lisa Loomis
The Town Plans for Warren, Waitsfield and Fayston provide very different guidance in terms of siting alternate energy systems, what is allowed and where.
The Town Plan is the one document that the Vermont Public Service Board heeds when considering applications for residential and commercial installations of renewable energy systems. And unless a town has spelled out specific siting guidelines and criteria, towns will have little or no say in how renewable energy develops locally.
In Waitsfield, where the planning commission is currently rewriting
the Town Plan, the planning commission will discuss issues relating to
renewable energy, wind and solar, at a May 18 hearing. At that meeting
the planners will also hear from a representative of Citizens' Energy
which has identified the Northfield Ridge as a potential site for a
commercial wind farm.
Currently Waitsfield's Town Plan is the most specific of all three Town Plans in how it addresses high-elevation development of energy. Under Chapter 3, Natural Resource Policies, the plan reads: "Land development, including the construction of roads and extension of utilities, shall be prohibited above an elevation of 1,700 feet MSL, with the exception of activities related to non-commercial recreation, forest management and low-impact seasonal camps."
Under Chapter 11, Energy Policies, the current plans reads: "Encourage dispersed, small scale and appropriately sited development of renewable energy generators, including, but not necessarily limited to, solar panels, wind turbines and micro-hydro. Wind turbines shall be discouraged in the Forest Reserve District above 1,700 feet elevation."
Finally, Chapter 12 on Land Use Policies includes very specific criteria for maintaining the high-elevation ridgelines. First this chapter identifies the need to "maintain the forest reserve district for the purpose of protecting significant forest resources and headwater streams and to limit development in areas with steep slopes, shallow soils, wildlife habitat, fragile features, scenic resources and poor access to town roads, facilities and services."
BELOW 1,700 FEET
The Town Plan details the following steps to achieve that:
a. Land use and development shall be limited to forestry, outdoor recreation, small seasonal camps, and year-round residential dwellings below an elevation of 1,700 feet;
b. Roads and utilities shall not extend at or above elevations of 1,700 feet except to provide seasonal access to camps, forestry operations and for recreation;
c. Development shall be carefully controlled to avoid adverse visual impacts, degradation of water quality, and the large-scale fragmentation of wildlife habitat and productive forest;
d. When land is subdivided, provision should be made to ensure access for future forest management and to avoid potential conflicts between land uses;
e. Residential development shall occur at low densities (maximum of one unit per 25 acres), although lot sizes should remain relatively small (less than 5 acres, with the balance of the land being held in larger parcels) to avoid the fragmentation of forest land. Planned Residential developments are an appropriate means for clustering development in this manner.
f. Forest management should incorporate Best Management Practices.
In Fayston, the Town Plan mentions micro-hydro and hydro-power as having some value but raises the question of whether such systems are looked at favorably by the state and federal regulatory agencies. In terms of wind power, the Fayston Town Plan reports that: "Fayston has several excellent potential locations on its ridges for the placement of wind turbines and public sentiment seems to look favorably on the idea of locally sited wind farms. Understanding and honoring the importance of finding sustainable, clean and renewable sources of locally produced power should be a high priority for the town. Wind promises to fill this need while improving the security of the nation by reducing our need for foreign oil."
In Warren, the Town Plan is also undergoing revision. This version of the plan was originally adopted in 2005, then amended in 2007 and readopted. The plan identifies the importance of orienting buildings for maximum solar gain and notes that solar energy can be used in three main areas: hot water loads, heating requirements and food supply.
Chapter 5 of the Warren Town Plan does include a paragraph about wind energy, which reads as follows: "The Lincoln Ridge is among the best wind sites in New England. However, most of this property is national forest. Green Mountain National Forest has a policy against development of wind turbines on national forest land. Therefore, it is unlikely that a large scale wind farm will be established in Warren. Small scale wind generation in The Valley is possible in certain areas but would have a small impact on overall generation and would require more detailed investigation of specific sites."
ON SKI AREA RIDGES
Either U.S. Forest Service regulations for national forest lands have changed since Warren's Town Plan was adopted, or it is wrong. Several USFS spokespeople contacted for this story explain that wind turbines are allowed in certain areas of the national forest.
National forest lands are categories by type and usage into a variety of management areas.
"Think of these areas as zoning," explained Susan Matheson, Eastern Sports regional team leader for the USFS.
Matheson explained that ski areas, including Sugarbush's Lincoln Peak (and Mount Ellen in Fayston), are in the alpine ski management area and, as such, governed by a set of rules, goals and objectives.
PURSUE WIND POWER
When a ski area owner leases federal forest land for recreation and alpine skiing, that lease holder has a right to run his/her business without another project interfering with it, so for example, wind turbines on Lincoln Peak could not interfere with Sugarbush's ability to run its Lincoln Peak ski area.
On the other hand, the ski area lease holder would have what might be considered the right of first refusal, Matheson said, in terms of whether that lease holder wants to pursue wind power on ridges it leases.
Should Sugarbush, or any other ski area that leases federal forest lands, want to pursue a wind project on the ridgelines, the project would undergo both federal and state review, according to Melissa Reichert, forest planner for the Green Mountain and Finger Lakes National Forest, for the USFS.
At Sugarbush, Jason Lisai, vice president of planning and development, said that Sugarbush has been approached by many commercial wind project developers but has not chosen to pursue any project yet.
"It is something we may choose to pursue on our own, or with a developer in the future, but not at this time. We have reviewed the proposals we've received and at this time they are not part of our business or development plan. Given the challenges of the current energy market, it may be something we will pursue. The issue for us is that we have a base load and a wind project doesn't cover that base load requirement. But it could supplement our base load," Lisai said.
Any proposed project would be reviewed under the National Environmental Protection Act (NEPA). That review would result in an Environmental Impact Statement (similar to those created when Sugarbush develops something new, or when the ski area expanded its snowmaking and built the Clay Brook residences).
Reichert said that if a particular parcel of land is in the right management area and wind power generation is an allowable use, the project goes through the review process.
"We issue a special use permit for wind power generation, if the project passes review. We're in the review process right now for the Deerfield Wind Project. That process also involves review at the state level as well," Reichert said.
AKIN TO ACT 250 REVIEW
State level review of wind-generating systems ranges from simple review to what is known as a full 248 review.
Greg Faber, utility analyst for the Vermont Public Service Board, explained that state level review is based on two types of systems: those that are net metered (i.e., feed into the existing power grid) and those selling power to the utility system.
"People who are producing power and selling it under contract to their utility are considered producers and to get those projects approved they have to go through the 248 or 248J review," Faber said.
This review requires public notice, testimony and criteria that mirror those of an Act 250 review. There is ample opportunity for public input and similar criteria for party status and participation.
For net-metered projects, Faber said, the review is simpler and certain criteria are waived and the application process is simpler. There is a limit on net-metered projects on the total capacity of the system, however. That limit is 250KW.
"To qualify for the lesser siting review requirement, a project has to be under 250KW in capacity," Faber said.
By way of comparison, the seven solar trackers that recently went in at Yestermorrow will supply over 90 percent of the electricity for the school's main classroom and have a total capacity of 28KW.
So any commercial solar or wind project proposed in The Valley and off the national forest would undergo a full 248 review. Any project proposed on national forest lands would undergo the state's 248 review as well as the USFS NEPA review.