A new VPR Poll shows conflicting ideas on how the state should move ahead with siting renewable energy projects.
When developers propose large scale wind or solar projects, it tends to split the community. Vermonters say they want to address climate change, but there's resistance to putting wind turbines on ridgelines or solar panels on prime farmland.
In the latest VPR poll a whopping 67 percent say they "somewhat" or "completely" trust the Public Service Board, which is a three-member panel that issues state permits for energy projects.
But in a second poll question, only 12 percent say the board should have the final say on where wind power generators are placed.
So how can more than two-thirds of the 650 people who were polled say they trust the board, but not enough to make decisions about where wind turbines should be built?
"The Public Service Board has not lost the faith or the trust of the people," says Richard Clark, director of the Castleton Polling Institute, which conducted the poll for VPR. "It's just that their preference would be to have the decisions more local. Vermonters tend to think very well of their state government. But if you look there, they prefer the local to the state."
That statewide debate over who should make decisions about energy projects played out in the Legislature earlier this year.
In the end, towns were given a seat at the table during the planning process, but the final decision on energy projects still rests with the Public Service Board.
Karen Horn is director of public policy and advocacy with the Vermont League of Cities and Towns, and she works with select boards and planners across the state. She says those VPR poll numbers bear out the frustration and tension she's hearing from her members over the new law.
"They believe that we need to move toward renewables. And they understand the threat that climate change is," says Horn. "But we also need consideration of the localized impacts of those projects. There are global issues and there are localized issues, and really the best decision-making process addresses both of those."
But the decision-making process gets muddier when you drill down into the VPR poll numbers even more.
Who should have final say?
Respondents were almost evenly split between allowing landowners to make decisions about wind projects, and giving the community final say.
In that same question where only 12 percent say they want the Public Service Board making decisions on industrial wind, 39 percent say it should be up to the landowners to decide what to do on their own property.
About 34 percent say the community should be able to vote a wind project up or down.
So when you consider the survey's 3.9-percent margin of error, Vermonters are almost evenly split between giving landowners or the community authority to make decisions about wind projects.
And in what appears to be an argument for property rights, 57 percent of the respondents who lean Republican want to leave it up to the property owners.
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Among those who lean to the left, a majority of about 42 percent say it should be up to the community, and not the landowners.
Henry Guion lives in East Montpelier, and he participated in the poll.
Guion says towns should be able to vote on energy projects, and he thinks a new model that distributes the profits from energy development could make everybody happy.
"I think if the wind turbines and solar were made public utilities, and the towns that [turbines] were put into could profit off of the solar and wind installations, then the town would be incentivized to put them in," he says.
The VPR poll also reveals splits among different regions in the state.
In Chittenden County, where the densely populated communities in and around Burlington aren't likely to see proposals for large wind projects, 17 percent trust the Public Service Board enough to make decisions about wind projects.
That's higher than the statewide response, and almost twice the percentage in southern Vermont, where developers want to build the state's largest wind project.
Mark Whitworth is with Energize Vermont, an anti-industrial wind group, and he's not surprised that people who live far away from energy projects tend to support the existing regulatory system.
"When the issue is an abstract issue, it's easier to support what the state is doing," Whitworth says. "Certainly the people in Swanton, the people in the [Northeast] Kingdom, the people in Windham and Grafton are experiencing direct impacts of our energy policies, and they've become much more educated about it. And I think they're far more critical of the way the state is going about energy development, and the way the state is going about responding to climate change."
Climate change and energy issues are important to Vermonters, the poll shows.
But the issues that affect people's wallets are also a top priority.
Taxes, jobs and the economy, were selected by about one-quarter of the respondents who were asked what lawmakers should focus on when they return to Montpelier next year.
The VPR Poll was made possible in part by the VPR Journalism Fund.