Valley towns are currently unable to review or regulate the siting and installation of alternative energy systems as all such systems that feed into the existing electric grid are regulated by the Vermont Public Service Board.
And while several groups including The Valley Futures Network, with the Mad River Valley Planning District, have begun looking at The Valley's energy usage, needs and future, even the creation of a Valley-wide energy plan that spelled out siting criteria would not trump the Public Service Board unless all towns adopted that plan and defined it in their individual town plans.
Although the Public Service Board is required to take local
ordinances into consideration when approving alternative energy systems,
there is very little that local towns can do to ensure that their
particular zoning ordinances are honored.
LOCAL OR STATE LEVEL?
The issue of whether alternative energy systems should be reviewed and regulated at the local or state level is something being discussed throughout The Valley and beyond particularly in communities that rely on tourism and the aesthetic appeal of mountains, open fields or oceans and beaches to attract those tourists.
When and if the review should be local, communities (and states) need to make sure that local voices are heard, local ordinances obeyed, local resources preserved and yet avoid the kind of NIMBY-ism that gets too many projects tanked.
In Martha's Vineyard there is currently a one-year moratorium on the siting of any wind energy projects in the state waters (up to three miles off shore). The moratorium was adopted by the Martha's Vineyard Commission, a regional planning agency that represents all the towns in Dukes County, Massachusetts.
Mark London, executive director of the commission, explained that while the state of Massachusetts has statutory authority to review commercial wind projects, specific wording in the enabling statute that created the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the similar Cape Cod Commission provides those two bodies with regulatory authority over development that will have regional impact.
He explained that the Massachusetts Oceans Act of 2008 opened up what had been ocean sanctuary areas to certain types of projects, including wind energy.
"For the Oceans Act, the state studied where wind and other ocean projects such as sand and gravel mining and aqua-culture should be sited. The main emphasis, however, was on wind energy and it identified two areas for commercial scale wind development," he said.
Both of those locations are within Dukes County.
CRITICAL PLANNING CONCERN
"We are a bit unusual in that we have regulatory authority over development with a regional impact. Our authority is similar to that of the regional commissions of Act 250 in Vermont. So there was wording in the Oceans Act that basically said that state review trumps our regional review. As a result of local representation by all of the select boards in all of our towns, our planning commissions and our state legislator and state senator, we were able to convince the state secretary of energy and environmental affairs that they should not be able to trump the two commissions, the Martha's Vineyard Commission and the Cape Cod Commission," London explained.
That action left the two regional commissions with the ability to define what projects are appropriate for their particular communities and London acknowledged that was a coup.
The commission adopted a district of critical planning concern (DCPC), a specific definition in the commission's bylaws which is defined as such:
"If the Martha's Vineyard Commission votes to consider a nominated area as a Critical District, then a special moratorium will take effect, suspending the town's authority to issue development permits within the area being considered. The moratorium extends to all 'development permits,' defined by the statute as 'any permit, license, authority, endorsement or permission required from a municipal agency prior to the commencement of construction, improvement or alteration made to buildings or land.'"
"Although it was a political agreement the question of whether our authority could have trumped the state's was not clear. The state said they don't want to force projects down our throats and want projects adopted that have the support of the community," London continued.
"We are now starting the process of trying to figure out what the community wants in terms of aesthetics, impact, location, how many, how big, etc. In one of the two areas defined by the Oceans Act there was room for 100 turbines and some would have been relatively close to the shore," he said.
State waters extend to three miles beyond the shore and federal waters are nine or more miles from the shore. London said there is a huge potential for federal projects and many people on the island argue that there should be no wind projects in the state waters, and that it makes the most sense to adopt the nine-mile federal water boundary.
"We are in the planning process. A month and a half ago we set up a task force and we are preparing visual simulations of what some options and projects would look like. The commission has general policies and review criteria for development of regional impacts but those have been land-based. A critical concern for us is that our economy is based directly and indirectly almost completely on tourism, vacation and seasonal homes. When we survey people, the scenic values of the island are right up there with what is most important," he concluded.
More information about the Martha's Vineyard Commission including simulations of wind power installations and the planning process can be found at mvcommission.org.