Rutland Herald

Toward responsible development

October 31, 2001

It is wonderful to see constructive ideas for continuing dialogue in the region (editorial, Rutland Herald, Oct. 27) as a result of the Rutland Economic Development’s forum on quality of life. REDC took a risk by inviting me to participate on the panel, and I want to thank them for the opportunity to begin an open and positive discussion.

The two industrial development projects that have impacted our region for the last three years share a common flaw – one that would not be corrected by the suggestion of the editorialist that REDC might put itself in a position of ombudsman in developing dialogue with business and environmental interests early in the stages of a project. That may be a good idea further down the line of a project’s development, but both the gas project and OMYA’s mining project were the products of irresponsible developers who did not take Vermont’s laws into consideration in developing their projects.

The power plant and pipeline project would never have been able to receive an Act 248 permit. This fact did not ever make it into any newspaper and did not become clear to those of us involved in the project until February 2000, when a merchant power plant bill appeared in the House Commerce Committee. During the committee hearing, I nearly fell out of my chair when I heard a representative of the Public Service Board say in his testimony that the bill first came about and was introduced the year before, when the PSB realized that the power plants proposed for southwestern Vermont would not be able to pass Act 248 the way it was written. The bill in the committee was an exemption to Act 248, removing the requirement that the project show “need” for the power. It did not get voted out of committee.

To the citizens of our region, the question of the “need” clause in Act 248 had arisen in several of the public meetings held during the summer of 1999.

On one occasion, right before the citizens of Tinmouth voted on the project, a citizen read a handout distributed by the public advocate of the Department of Public Service. The public advocate was in the audience. The citizen said, “I read all these criteria, and I just don’t see how this project will ever pass Act 248, especially this part that says that there has to be a ‘need’ for the power that cannot be met by other measures.” The public advocate and other state government employees present nodded their heads when the question was read, but they didn’t give a response when he finished.

Those of us most involved in dealing with the enormous billion dollar gas project felt a tremendous sense of betrayal when we learned that, in fact, the Legislature and Public Service Board were fully aware that the project was not permittable without a change in Act 248. All the time, energy, and money that the citizens of this region expended trying to cope with something too big, moving too fast, and in the wrong direction for Vermont’s energy future seemed to have been a total waste.

And then on the heels of the largest development project ever seen in this part of the state came OMYA’s so-called “plan” to open a new quarry in Danby. A simple evaluation of the 10 criteria of Act 250 clearly shows that the project as presented would never have passed Act 250 – especially the transportation and aesthetic criteria. When I met with Jim Reddy in June, he readily agreed that the plan that had already been put out by the time he arrived was not permittable. And he acknowledged that he didn’t have a plan that could pass Act 250, and he didn’t know when he would be able to come up with one. “Maybe technology will change sometime in the future,” he said wishfully.

I admit to some frustration when I read the suggestion that the process could be improved by involving citizens and beginning a dialogue earlier, without first admonishing the developers for their failure to evaluate their proposals in the context of existing Vermont law. Only after developers have determined that their proposals will comply with the law should citizens’ lives become interrupted and intruded upon.

It has become common practice for developers to enter into Act 250 proceedings with proposals that clearly will not receive a permit. Instead of taking responsibility for turning a blind eye to the law, the chorus bashes and blames Act 250 and the permitting process for stopping development.

Vermonters for a Clean Environment is made up of the people of the region who came together to deal with two irresponsible development proposals. We have seen the economic consequences of poorly planned projects first-hand, and have borne those costs.

One constructive suggestion we now would like to put on the table is that large development proposals provide intervenor funding to enable citizens to cope with the expense of the lawyers and experts that we are required to hire to participate in Act 248 or Act 250.

Perhaps if developers are responsible for contributing to paying for the burden their projects place on citizens, they won’t be so careless in crafting their plans.

We are for Vermont. In the future, I would appreciate being referred to as a “citizen advocate” rather than the moniker “opponent” or “foe” that has been used to label my efforts to educate and inform the public over the last two and a half years. It has been my great pleasure to get to know so many thoughtful and intelligent Vermonters, and I am honored to learn that people want me to continue this work. There is every reason to believe that this region can have responsible development and that we can work together in a positive way.

Annette Smith of Danby is executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment.