Some important environmental and energy bills were passed during the 2015–2016 legislative session. Below is a brief summary of the major points. We will follow up with detailed posts about each bill. Check back for more!
S.260/Act 174: Renewable Energy Bill Expands Role for Planning Commissions & Sets Wind Energy Sound Limits
The Vermont legislature passed a renewable energy bill on June 9, 2016, that is intended to increase the importance of local planning for renewable energy projects. Highlights from the bill include:
- Expanded role for planning commissions. Municipal and regional planning commissions can get their energy plans certified as “energy compliant” by the Commissioner of Public Service—giving those plans “substantial deference” in individual permitting proceedings and giving more weight to planning at the local level. Planning commissions can designate sites as suitable or unsuitable for renewable energy projects.
- Wind project sound limits. The Public Service Board (Board) must adopt rules for wind project sound limits. The Board must adopt temporary rules by July 28, 2016, to be used for all applications filed on or after June 13, 2016. (The Board should not consider applications filed on or after June 13 until it has passed the rules for sound limits.) The Board must adopt final rules by July 1, 2017. Follow this link to view the comments the Board has already received regarding this rule-making.
- Preferred siting. Starting January 1, 2017, the Board will begin a one-year pilot program under the Standard Offer Program to encourage siting renewable projects in certain areas, including: parking lot canopies, landfills, certified brownfield sites, disturbed portions of gravel pits and quarries, land where a building or other “impervious structure” was previously built, land designated by a municipal energy plan, a Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act National Priorities List site, and hydroelectric dams already in existence and approved by U.S. Federal Energy Regulatory Commission.
- Expanded intervention rights. Municipal legislatures, municipal and regional planning commissions, and the Agency of Agriculture have expanded intervention rights in Certificate for Public Good (CPG) proceedings.
- Aesthetic mitigation standards. The Board must adopt standards for post-construction inspection and maintenance of aesthetic mitigation and decommissioning for energy projects by August 15, 2017. The Department of Public Service must first propose rules to the Board by November 1, 2016.
- Disturbed soils & vegetation. Projects greater than 50 kW must include information in their CPG applications about disturbed soils and vegetation, visible infrastructure, and adverse impacts.
- Radar-controlled obstruction lights. Where required by the Federal Aviation Administration, wind energy facilities with four or more turbines must have radar-controlled obstruction lights.
- CPGs in land records. For projects greater than 15 kW, the holder of a CPG must record notice of the CPG in the land records as if it were a deed.
- “Primarily agricultural soils” joins the protected list: just as the Board should not issue a CPG for a project that will have an adverse effect on “aesthetics, historic sites, air and water purity, the natural environment, the use of natural resources, … the public health and safety, … [or] greenhouse gas impacts,” the Board should not issue a CPG for a project that will adversely affect “agricultural soils.”
- Hydroelectric plants subject to the Federal Power Act (under the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission) will not seek licensing through the CPG process.
S.123/Act 150: Changed Permit Process for the Department of Environmental Conservation
S.123 set new standards for the permit and appeal process for permits issued by the Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC). The changes are intended to streamline the permit process, increase public awareness, and give early notice of public concerns to DEC and applicants. The Act passed May 5, 2016. Some highlights include:
- Procedures for providing notice and comment and reviewing permit applications have been consolidated from 85 distinct processes down to five broad categories of procedures.
- An electronic environmental bulletin will give extensive public notice of proposed projects.
- For individual permits and some general permits, applicants must notify adjoining landowners of proposed projects by mail.
- For most permit processes, the DEC must provide notice of every completed application, scheduled hearing, and Secretary of Natural Resources (Secretary) decision regarding the permit in question to the applicant, the municipality in which the project will be located, and anyone who registers for notice on the electronic bulletin website.
- Except for emergency permits, the DEC must provide a comment period (usually 30 days).
- To appeal a Secretary decision, a person must first submit comments during the comment period. Appeals must be related to those comments.
- For large projects, parties must notify the public before applying for a DEC permit.
- The new appeal process will take effect on January 1, 2018.
H.857/Act 171: State Initiative to Preserve Forest Blocks and Habitat Corridors
H.857 aims to “sustain long-term forest health, integrity, and productivity” in benefit of Vermont’s economy, environment, and general health and welfare. Among its changes is a forest management policy to preserve contiguous forest blocks and habitat corridors. The Act passed on May 6, 2016. Some highlights include:
- Starting January 1, 2018, municipal and regional planning commissions should indicate areas of land that are important as forest blocks (contiguous sections of forest) and habitat connectors in their land use plans. The commissions should also include land development plans that minimize forest fragmentation and enhance forest health.
- The legislature created a Study Committee on Land Use Regulation and Forest Integrity that will consider how to revise Act 250 and 24 VSA ch. 116, subchapter 7 (the section on municipal bylaws and zoning) in order to protect forest blocks and habitat corridors. The Committee was created on June 7, 2016.
H.570/Act 145: Secretary of Natural Resources to Designate “Critical Habitat”
The Vermont legislature passed a bill on May 2, 2016, that authorizes the Secretary of Natural Resources to designate property as “critical habitat” for threatened or endangered species. The bill is designed to align more closely with the federal Endangered Species Act, which allows for the designation of critical habitat. Some highlights include:
- Critical habitat must be “necessary for the conservation or recovery” of a listed species.
- Anyone who adversely impacts a designated critical habitat without a permit may be subject to environmental or criminal enforcement.
- An action has an adverse impact if it “negatively affects the value of critical habitat for the survival, conservation, or recovery of a listed threatened or endangered species,” either directly or indirectly.
- Under certain conditions, the Secretary may issue permits allowing parties to adversely impact critical habitats. The Secretary may set requirements for the permits, such as mitigation measures.
- The Secretary must follow rule-making procedures in order to designate critical habitat. The Secretary must notify and consult with various government agencies, affected landowners, and any interested persons, at least 60 days prior to rule-making. The Secretary also may not cause “undue interference” with farming, forestry, or silvicultural practices.
- The Act took effect on July 1, 2016.
Authored by Geoff Hand & Heather Devine