Opinion | Editorials

February 4, 2015

Legal intimidation

February 04,2016Annette Smith was drawn into environmental activism by proposed developments impacting her off-the-grid home in Danby, including a gas pipeline and a marble quarry expansion. 

Subsequently, she founded a group called Vermonters for a Clean Environment, which examines the ways new projects affect the lives of ordinary citizens. She has butted heads, not only with Omya, but with the state’s major utilities and other developers of wind and solar projects. She brings a skeptical view toward the doings of big institutions, and sometimes, in the view of some, she can be a pain in the neck.

Pain in the neck is probably a description she would accept. And Vermont has long made provision in its law, and its civic culture, for people willing to be tagged as such. Who hasn’t witnessed the pain in the neck hollering questions from the back row at town meeting? Sometimes he or she makes a valid point, sometimes not. We long ago learned the virtues of tolerance and patience, knowing that everyone has a right to have his say.

Vermont’s laws reflect this understanding. Open meeting laws provide that governments must do their business in public and that people are notified so they can participate. Importantly, the state’s principal land-use law, Act 250, is written explicitly in order to foster public participation. The law is administered by a local commission made up of local citizens — the district environmental commissions — and hearings are conducted so as to allow parties in environmental cases to participate as citizens. It is the aim of the law that citizens not be required to lawyer up. Reforms to Act 250 have encountered resistance when it appeared they would make the proceedings too legalistic, forcing private citizens to hire a lawyer to participate.

Smith has involved herself in these proceedings, and in utility cases before the Public Service Board. She is a citizen, not a lawyer, and she doesn’t pretend to be a lawyer. But now an unnamed party has complained to the attorney general’s office that she is guilty of practicing law without a license, and the office has begun a criminal investigation.

In a recent case, Smith clashed with Green Mountain Power about a wind turbine that a Vergennes resident said was creating extremely harmful physical effects. Smith filed a motion asking the Public Service Board if she could intervene on behalf of the resident who was not a native English speaker. 

GMP was annoyed. The motion was filed the day before a hearing was schedule, and the GMP lawyer complained that she had not had enough time to consider it. The lawyer accused Smith of “wanting to act as a lawyer.”

Later, GMP issued statements about the need to work with communities and to hear from all stakeholders. GMP said it had never seen Smith crossing any lines improperly and praised the “passion” Smith brings to her environmental work.

Anyone seeking to silence Smith or any other citizen/activists in Vermont ought to think twice. The state is in a state of transition during which we will be moving toward new forms of energy from diverse and scattered sources, and we are still learning the ground rules about siting them and integrating them into our system. A legal attack seeking to quash citizen involvement would be counterproductive and damaging. 

Solar and wind projects are proliferating in Vermont, and they must continue to proliferate. But it will be harmful to our communities and to the social comity of the state if people feel they have no voice and big companies have free rein. We must achieve balance between our energy needs and the physical integrity of the landscape. We can’t treat neighbors of projects with reckless disregard for their well-being. But balance cannot be achieved if one side has its thumb on the scale, silencing the other side through legal intimidation. If Smith has become one of the most well-recognized pains in the neck in Vermont, more power to her.