Solar siting is a state, not a local, issue
Open letter to Governor Peter Shumlin.
I believe that climate change is the most pressing issue facing our planet and that Vermont should do its part to mitigate its damaging effects. But I am concerned that our lack of a coherent solar farm siting strategy will harm our state's unique character and it for this reason that I followed the senate's efforts at addressing this concern that led to its remedial bill — S.260 — that you recently signed, leaving no doubt that you believe it resolved the matter to your satisfaction. But S.260 is wrongheaded in its approach and solution, not meant as a criticism but an acknowledgement that we sometimes find ourselves mired in the weeds unable to see a clear path forward. Let me explain.
If my understanding is correct, S.260's solution to solving the solar farm siting issues that concern many Vermonters is to allow "substantial deference" to those communities explicitly expressing in their town plans the desire to protect 'visually sensitive areas' that the Public Service Board must consider when siting proposed solar arrays within their borders. Based on that statement, S.260 is seriously flawed on two levels.
The first is that S.260's main premise is, as Mr. Spock would say, illogical because it wrongly asks communities to identify areas they have 'more interest' in protecting when it should be asking them to identify areas they have 'less interest' in protecting. Why? Because the former only tells solar developers where they 'can't' build (which leads them nowhere) and the latter leads them directly to areas where they "can" build.
And the second is the bill's lack of a uniform statewide strategy because it allows towns the choice to 'opt-in', or not, when it should have required all towns to follow the same protocol because continuity from town to town is better policy for the whole of Vermont. To illustrate this, let's imagine how this might play out.
Vermont has 255 municipalities. Suppose that half opt-in to take advantage of the law. This means that half will still risk siting many hundreds of solar farms in visually sensitive areas throughout our state. And herein lies one of those inexplicable cognitive disconnects among the many who advanced the renewable energy initiative through its long journey to passage that not one among them had that single, definitive 'aha' moment and thought – Solar farm siting is a state, not local, issue.
Yes, solar farm siting has always been a state issue and my reasoning is grounded in historical precedent best illustrated by your predecessor Governor Philip Hoff's 1968 Anti-Billboard Law that removed the scourge of roadside billboards from our state. Can you imagine how discordant Vermont would look today had he applied your standard of empowered our state's 255 communities the choice of opting in, or not, to his signature bill? And by doing so don't you risk undoing his signature accomplishment by designating solar farms as Vermont's new-millennium roadside billboards? That's why I would like to suggest a way forward that I communicated to Senator Brian Campion last year that represents the most cogent strategy for resolving solar farm siting concerns for the whole of Vermont, and it is this: Simply have the Public Service Board request from each of Vermont's 255 municipalities 12 sites where solar arrays would have the "least visual impact" on residents and visitors alike to comprise a statewide database of 3,060 venues that solar developers would be required to work from when selecting a site for their project.
I hope you see the wisdom in this approach, Governor, for I believe it provides the best solution for protecting our state's unique character and assuring a legacy for which you can be proud.
— James Kardas Manchester