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Committee Puts Off Decision On Wind Project Sound Standards

Howard Weiss-Tisman
The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules hears from memberas of the Public Service Board, and staff attorneys, at a hearing in the Statehouse Thursday.

After hearing testimony on the Public Service Board's proposed new sound standards for commercial wind turbines Thursday, the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules voted to put off making a decision on the controversial new standards.

In a packed hearing room at the Statehouse Thursday, the committee, known as LCAR, heard from members of the Public Service Board, and from witnesses on both sides of the contentious debate, but in the end decided to take more time to study the science behind the sound standards.

It's LCAR's job to make sure any new rule doesn't run afoul of Vermont law, and when state officials go before the committee it's generally a quick and painless process.

But that's not the way it went down Thursday.

"This is not an easy one for this panel," said Democratic Sen. Mark MacDonald, VCAR vice chairman. "There are a lot of questions to be asked both by proponents of wind and opponents to wind that the board needs to clarify or give reassurance for."

The Public Service Board was asked to establish sound standards for wind turbines, and they surprised people on both sides of the debate by proposing what would be the lowest sound standards in the country.

Supporters of commercial wind say the new rules would effectively stop any future development, because they say it would be almost impossible to build new wind towers that don't exceed the new rules.

But opponents want LCAR to approve the rules, arguing that the sound standards protect human health.

MacDonald says it's not LCAR's job to get into the middle of that fight, but rather to make sure the science is sound, and fair to everyone.

"We have to ask if these rules are being written on noise, or are they being written to deal with people who don't like wind, and find wind invasive, intrusive, ugly or annoying?" MacDonald said. "The board has to identify one of those things and stick with it. Legislators often write laws that go both ways, but rules aren't supposed to do that. So it's challenging."

The challenge to come up with sound standards has been long and complicated, and the Public Service Board heard hours of testimony from the two sides over the past few months.

The hearing Thursday was one of the last times to make an argument on either side.

Olivia Campbell Andersen, the director of Renewable Energy Vermont, an advocacy group for commercial wind, told the legislative committee to take a hard look at the science in the proposed sound rules.

"We believe that the specific areas of the rule are contrary to legislative intent and arbitrary," Andersen said. "The 39 [decibel] sound limit is not supported by any documentation in the record regarding impact to public health or annoyance."

But  Vermonters for a Clean Environment Director Annette Smith said that while the rules weren't perfect, they would do a better job of protecting property owners who might be living near a ridgeline that's slated for wind development.

"The rule is not beyond the authority of the agency," said Smith. "Is not arbitrary. Is written in a satisfactory style, does not fail to recognize the substantial economic impact, and the PSB has adhered to the strategy for maximizing public comment."

The Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules agreed to come back on June 22 to try to make a decision on the sound rules.

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