Rutland Herald

Complacency in high places

November 1, 2001

The chairwoman of the state Environmental Board, Marcy Harding, has apologized for allowing a cell tower developer to lobby the board in a way that may have violated the law.

Still, it is worth considering the significance of the board’s mistake and of the attempt by state officials to mock environmental lawyers who frequently appear before the board.

The occasion was the Environmental Board’s annual meeting last week. At the meeting the board heard a lengthy presentation by Mollie Steiger, site acquisition manager for Crown Castle International, a cell tower developer.

Cell tower construction has become a controversial issue in some parts of Vermont. Companies such as Crown Castle have an interest in winning the sympathy of state regulators who may be making decisions about whether particular projects are in accord with Act 250, the state’s land use law.

But the Environmental Board is a quasi-judicial body, and developers are not supposed to contact board members outside the formal legal process. Citizens who have opposed some cell tower projects have received warnings from the board to present their information only in formal hearings.

They were outraged, therefore, to learn that Steiger had a special, unofficial audience with the Environmental Board. Board officials engaged in some hair-splitting to justify the appearance, but in the end, Harding was forced to apologize.

In addition, to Steiger’s inappropriate appearance, the meeting included a lunchtime presentation where an official presented Michael Zahner, executive director of the board, with a mock law book on Act 250, supposedly written by two lawyers who frequently defend environmental interests.

Beyond the question of legality, these events suggest an unsettling degree of complacency on the part of state environmental officials. It is a reminder that over the years environmentalists have become a part of the establishment in Vermont. They staff prestigious environmental groups, and they occupy a variety of important government positions, administering Vermont’s environmental laws.

It is not surprising, therefore, that comfortable bureaucrats might grow increasingly comfortable with other establishment figures. Steiger must have figured she had achieved quite a coup being admitted to the club on such a friendly basis.

But environmental issues are often not comfortable. Issues that really matter are often identified at the grass-roots level by people who are not members of the club, who are not so familiar with its procedures, who may be annoying, persistent, and strident in their effort to be heard by the establishment.

We all understand the importance of modern communications, and it would be nice for approval of cell tower projects to proceed without a fuss. But some people are making a fuss – maybe for good reasons, maybe not – and they don’t deserve to be treated as a nuisance.

It was not establishment environmentalists who raised concerns about development projects in Danby that, according to some Danby residents, were inappropriate to the region. Both the proposed natural gas pipeline and OMYA’s proposed quarry ran into opposition from grass-roots environmentalists who have practiced the kind of bothersome activism that characterized the broader environmental movement in earlier days.

Comfy bureaucrats may be inclined to mock the environmentalists who make their life difficult and feel cozier with business lobbyists who know how to play the game. But Harding’s apology ought also to include a pledge to avoid complacency by regulators whose job it is to administer our laws fairly.