Testing Our Mettle

Nov 4, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

DSC05251When rampant development overran Vermont’s hillsides in the form of shoddy ski chalets, our state’s casual regulations proved ill-equipped to stop the flow of sewage, pollution and bad decisions. In 1969, the prospect of 1400 new vacation homes on Stratton Mountain sent a wake-up call. Our collective response was to pass Act 250. This law requires large development projects to show they meet ten sensible criteria. In the process we ensure that developments do not run roughshod over Vermont’s valuable communities and natural resources.

Considered groundbreaking at the time, the strength of Act 250 rests on three pillars – comprehensive review, citizen decision-makers, and broad participation. Combined, these allow communities to make common sense decisions about how we develop, and how we protect valuable resources.

Forty-five years later Act 250’s — and our own — mettle are being sorely tested. A massive development of over one million square feet – about the size of ten big box stores – is proposed on valuable farmland at one of Vermont’s most scenic vistas in Randolph.

A development of that scale has enormous impacts. The square footage of commercial space alone would be more than what currently exists a few miles away in downtown Randolph, Vermont. A project of this size shows exactly what Act 250 is designed to do, and why it has been a model for addressing environmental impacts. Through the Act 250 review, regional Commissions carefully weigh the impacts on farmland, water, forests, downtowns and other resources. The clear standards reflect what we value and assure that we do not squander important statewide treasures.  As one witness said at a recent hearing for the Randolph project, “once farmland is paved, it is gone forever.”

There is high demand for good farmland. Agriculture adds much to the local economy. Going forward, climate change puts more farmland at risk nationally, and demands that we rely more on local supplies for food and crops. Act 250 helps us meet these challenges. It provides strong and sensible protections for valuable farmland. Location matters. There are stronger protections for farmland outside of downtowns than there are for farmland in downtown areas. This makes sense. Protecting our rural farmland against the inappropriate development that is proposed in Randolph ensures that our resources and our communities can thrive not just now, but in future generations as well.

Citizens play a vital role in the success of Act 250. Like Vermont’s legislature, the Commissions that make the Act 250 decisions are local citizens. They bring their knowledge, caring and local perspective to the process. They apply the statewide law to evaluate local projects that have far-reaching impacts. In doing so, their common sense judgments have steered Vermont away from the toughest shoals of boom and bust real-estate bubbles experienced in other states.

Broad participation is another hallmark of Act 250. The Commissions must rely on the information presented to them. Often they will hear only from a developer, and the effect is like listening to just the bass drum in an orchestra. This makes it hard to carefully evaluate impacts. Sounder decisions result when Commissions welcome broad input and full participation from local citizens, and groups that have an interest and expertise in the resources and communities affected.

We will always face new challenges and new opportunities. The strength of Act 250 lies in its combination of vision and common sense. It allows us to avoid the pitfalls that come with slowly chipping away at resources we know we will need in the future, like good farmland and clean water. Plans for over-development like what is proposed in Randolph Vermont, threaten our communities, our farms, our economy and our future.

Local Livestock in Burlington, Vermont

Oct 14, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Residents of Burlington, Vermont, now have even more local food options. Burlington City Council passed two new livestock ordinances. The ordinances regulate the humane treatment and slaughter of chickens, rabbits, goats and sheep within the city limits. Folks in Burlington can now raise their own local meats and know the livestock are humanely treated. Burlington is one of only three cities in the nation with urban livestock regulations. The other two are Chicago and Seattle. Conservation Law Foundation worked closely with the Burlington Food Council’s Urban Agriculture Task Force in recommending a cohesive urban agriculture policy to the Burlington City Council and then developing thoughtful urban agriculture regulations. The language of the final ordinance largely reflects the language CLF drafted with the Urban Livestock Working Group.

The ordinances give residents of Burlington greater control over what they are consuming. Burlington residents now have a viable alternative to purchasing meat products produced at environmentally hazardous large-scale confined animal feed operations. Access to healthy foods such as the products and meat produced from chickens, rabbits, goats and sheep also lends itself to greater food security and independence. By developing these thoughtful ordinances allowing not just the keeping and slaughter of animals, but also ensuring that the process is humane and healthy for all involved, Burlington is leading the nation in urban agriculture.


Posted in: Farm & Food, Vermont

Protecting Act 250 and Important Vermont Farmland

Oct 7, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment


We recently sent this e-mail to Vermont supporters as a continuation of the work by Conservation Law Foundation, Preservation Trust of Vermont, and Vermont Natural Resources Council, to uphold Act 250 and protect important Vermont farmland:

Dear friends,

Massive over-development of farmland threatens Vermont’s environment and communities. Send a letter to Governor Shumlin, Agency officials and your legislator opposing the destruction of valuable farmland for poorly-planned development.

It’s not just theoretical: A developer in Randolph wants to run roughshod over Vermont farmland. Plans are afoot to build over one million square feet of development – about the size of ten big box stores – on this important land. This area lies just miles from downtown Randolph at one of the most scenic and rural highway exits in Vermont.

A small part of the project is a new Visitor Center – about the size of a large house. But we don’t need the rest of this massive new development – which is more than 200 times larger than the Visitor Center – just to provide bathrooms.

The developer is pushing this massive development forward with the lure of this new Visitor Center. But this modest Visitor Center is really just a cynical ploy to get us to sacrifice nearly 180 acres of farmland to unnecessary development. Keeping farmland nearby is more important than ever as we face the floods and droughts of climate change. We shouldn’t trade our future food sources for a few toilets and a bunch of giant buildings. This proposal is a bad deal for us Vermonters – and it violates the law too.

Act 250 is a state law that requires large new developments to respect natural resources. It prevents developments from blindly paving over land, polluting the environment, and disrupting communities. Our lawmakers and state officials should enforce and strengthen this law.

Conservation Law Foundation along with Vermont Natural Resources Council, Preservation Trust of Vermont and Exit 4 Open Space are fighting hard to oppose the plan for Randolph and to ensure that the law protecting against destructive development is not sidelined. If this development is allowed here, then none of Vermont’s farmland is safe.

We need your help now.

Send a letter to Governor Shumlin, Agency officials and your legislator today. Tell them to uphold and strengthen Act 250. Tell them to oppose the destruction of Vermont’s important, finite farmland. Tell them to remember their duty to protect our valuable resources throughout Vermont.


Sandra Levine, Conservation Law Foundation
Paul Bruhn, Preservation Trust of Vermont
Brian Shupe, Vermont Natural Resources Council

P.S. New projects are being reviewed every day – thank you for taking the time today to tell officials and state lawmakers where you stand.

Low Cost of Renewable Power

Sep 10, 2015 by  | Bio |  1 Comment »

photo courtesy of Theodore Scott @ flickr.com

photo courtesy of Theodore Scott @ flickr.com

Whether you are looking to put solar panels on your roof or joining with neighbors for a new community solar project, you know that the cost of renewable energy has come down a lot in the past few years.

For many customers, using solar or wind guarantees stable or lower electric bills for years to come.

And it reduces pollution as we collectively rely less and less on dirty and polluting fossil fuels to keep our gadgets going and our homes comfortable.

On a larger scale, renewable energy is having the same effect on electricity prices in New England.  Apart from reducing pollution, a key benefit to most renewable energy, like wind and solar, is their low or zero fuel cost. When the sun shines or the wind blows, they produce power and no one is sending them a fuel bill.

Most power plants in the region need to pay for coal, oil, gas or uranium for fuel. The operating cost for these plants depends heavily on their cost of fuel. The cost of fuel gets passed on to customers and often dictates the price we pay for electricity. When fuel prices go up, the cost of electricity goes up.

As more and more renewable power becomes available in the region, low or zero fuel costs from the wind, sun or water are driving down the cost of electricity for everyone.

A recent report and activities by the ISO-New England, which is responsible for maintaining the reliability of our electric grid, confirms this.

This is good news for our pocket books and for the environment.

Our electric grid is a marvel of physics. Because electricity cannot be easily stored, the grid must balance the supply from large and small power generators with the demand caused by anything that we plug in. It is a bit like having a big dinner party and needing to keep everyone’s water glass filled without using a pitcher of water. You’ll have to keep the water from springs, wells and hoses available at just the right amount, and then keep the flow in the faucet to the exact amount needed, all the time.

To do this for electricity, the grid is managed in part by calling on generators to run when needed. The price for this wholesale power is set on an hourly basis by using auctions. The least expensive generators are called into service first and the last generator called into service to meet demand sets the price for all generators during that hour. That is why we pay a lot for electricity on hot summer days. Meeting demand when many air conditioners are running requires lots of electricity, including running some of the most expensive fossil-fuel plants.

Supplies that can operate at low cost, like wind and solar, can and do set the price we all pay during some hours. During the polar vortex in 2014, wind power reduced the wholesale price in New England by $26 million.  For a few hours last winter, renewable energy supplies actually set a negative price.

The value of their renewable energy credits, which they sell for every kilowatt hour they produce, mean that their operating cost is actually less than zero. The low cost of renewables drives down the wholesale price. If coal, gas or nuclear plants are operating in those hours, they not only don’t get paid for their energy, but they will have to pay the ISO. This puts further pressure on polluting plants to close down and not operate.

As renewable energy supply continues to grow to meet our region’s climate change mandates, our grid will have more and more of these lower cost power resources available. These will not only push aside fossil fuel plants that will be too expensive to run, it will also lower overall electricity prices for everyone.

One study in connection with the almost 500 megawatts of wind power expected from the Cape Wind project off the coast of Massachusetts estimated a price reduction benefit of about $185 million annually. That is not only a lot less money that we will all pay for electricity, but a lot less pollution as well.

Solar School Success

Sep 2, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

DSC03678The future is bright at one Vermont school. Conservation Law Foundation joined other Vermont environmental groups and a class of fifth grade students to highlight the success of solar energy in Vermont.

We gathered at the Crossett Brook Middle School. The solar project there provides the school with electricity, stable power costs, and a great learning tool. As students play sports on the fields, or look outside their school windows, they see how their school is helping transform Vermont’s power supply and reduce global warming pollution.

The students’ future is certainly bright. They live and go to school in a community with some of the highest per capita production of solar energy in the nation.

Vermonters’ enthusiastic embrace of solar energy advances the state’s green energy economy. There are now more than 58 solar companies based in Vermont, employing more than 1,500 people, and contributing more than 76 million dollars last year to Vermont’s economy. The 138 MW of solar energy currently installed or permitted in Vermont is enough to power more than 22,000 homes while reducing greenhouse gas emissions roughly equivalent to taking 14,000 cars off the road in one year.

Solar power makes sense for Vermont and New England. The cost of solar power has declined more than 30% in the last year. Solar panels can attach to rooftops, industrial sites, or be placed on open land.

By providing power at times when it is most needed, increasing our reliance on solar helps reduce costs for all electric customers. Since solar power is generated close to where it is used, increasing our reliance on solar also reduces our need for expensive new transmission projects to bring power to Vermont from far away places.

With climate change bearing down on all of us, it is refreshing to see how students and local communities are leading the way.



Hiding the Ball

Aug 7, 2015 by  | Bio |  3 Comment »

Photo courtesy of David Joyce @ flickr.com

Photo courtesy of David Joyce @ flickr.com

With our energy supply, when utilities hide the ball, the environment suffers.

In Vermont, regulators just imposed a $100,000 fine on the developer of a large natural gas pipeline, Vermont Gas Systems.  You can read the order here.

The company waited more than six months to disclose a significant cost increase for the project.

The Board wrote that the company “failed in its obligation of transparency,”  thus, undermining the regulatory process and “creating mistrust” among the public.

Harsh words, and a harsh fine. One of the largest ever imposed in Vermont and very near the maximum penalty allowed.

This project has been plagued with problems from the beginning.  CLF was the first to highlight the faulty analysis about the project’s significant greenhouse gas emissions. With the high cost of climate change, this project is simply a bad deal for Vermont.

Later problems include failure to treat landowners fairly, bulldozing wetlands that were to be protected,  and overall poor management.  Instead of transparency and responsibility, Vermont Gas seems to be taking a page from Entergy’s untrustworthy and lackluster management of the Vermont Yankee nuclear plant that closed at the end of  2014.

As the regulators recognized, utilities need to build and maintain trust. When they hide the ball, keep costs and other important matters secret, or keep citizens out of the process and in the dark, the environment suffers.

Openness and transparency foster good management and good projects. A year ago, CLF challenged the withholding of public information about regional energy plans for new pipelines and transmission projects. The public should know about the real costs and impacts of our energy use. Good projects should have nothing to hide and no reason to keep the public out.

When it comes to energy decisions, hiding the ball just doesn’t cut it.



Paving Farmland? No Thanks!

Jul 22, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Location of proposed development

Location of proposed development

Massive over-development of valuable farmland at a rural highway exit in Vermont just doesn’t make sense.

CLF and others are challenging plans for building over one-million square feet – about the size of ten big box stores – at a scenic and rural highway exit in Randolph Vermont.

The project site includes some of the state’s most valuable farmland. In this area, good farmland is in very short supply. It supports area dairies, award-winning cheese makers and vegetable growers.

The floods and droughts from climate change mean that keeping farmland nearby is even more important.

At a recent “Act 250” land use hearing on the project, farmers explained why this land is so important. Carving these open fields into small parcels with limited access ruins the ability to continue farming in the area. Area farmers already travel great distances to access good land. Land that is close by should be more accessible.

Expert planners also showed that the proposed project falls far short of meeting regulatory requirements to protect valuable farmland. Vermont law requires that any development on good farmland must minimize the impact by clustering the buildings in a smaller area and using the land efficiently. Instead of meeting these standards the project would sprawl over more than half of the land at the site.

Paving over valuable farmland is bad for farming, bad for our climate and bad for the vitality of our downtowns.

You can hear recent story on Vermont Public Radio here, and see a display of the project’s impact below.

Buildings on soils

Settlement on Large Transmission Project Adds Benefits for Communities, Environment, and Climate

Jul 2, 2015 by  | Bio |  Leave a Comment

Conservation Law Foundation recently reached a settlement in a Vermont permitting case for a large new electric transmission project proposed by TDI-NE.

The settlement adds significant benefits to a project planned to bring additional power from Canada into New England. The settlement ensures that the power being transmitted comes from hydro, wind, and solar projects – a critical step in meeting regional goals to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. The settlement also boosts efforts to clean up Lake Champlain, which CLF has long championed, with TDI-NE committing more than $200 million towards cleaning up the lake, and $70 million for Vermont renewable energy.

You can read the Agreement here. And here is the TDI announcement about the Agreement.

The proposed project will deliver up to 1000 MW of power from Canadian sources to customers in Southern New England. That’s about equal to the power generated from one very large coal-fired plant, but with lower greenhouse gas emissions. The power would be sourced from large-scale hydro, wind and solar, all of which are considered renewable under Vermont law.

Building this transmission line is a significant project, one that will run entirely underwater, including under Lake Champlain, or underground and travel much of the length of Vermont. The agreement strengthens the environmental and public benefits of the project, including adding an additional $121 million over the life of the project to support Vermont renewable energy and much-needed Lake Champlain clean-up.

Highlights from the agreement include:

  • Increasing the combined monetary value of the Lake Champlain Phosphorous Cleanup Fund, Lake Champlain Enhancement and Restoration Trust Fund, and Vermont Renewables Programs Fund from the originally proposed $162 million to a minimum of $283.5 million over the 40-year life of the project.
  • Establishing a Renewables Integration Advisory Committee, which includes CLF and will seek to optimize and maximize the use of the project for improved integration of renewable power in New England.
  • Appointment of CLF to the Advisory Board of the Lake Champlain Enhancement and Restoration Trust Fund, which will make determinations about funding projects to enhance Lake Champlain.
  • Submission to regulators and the public by TDI-NE of all contracts with energy suppliers who utilize the transmission line to confirm that the energy shipped on the line is generated from non-fossil fuel energy sources.

With these agreements from TDI, CLF has agreed not to oppose any project-specific permits. But we do retain our right to express our views about electric transmission generally, funding processes for transmission projects, and the sources of power that will be transmitted by the proposed project.

CLF is pleased to have been able to work constructively with TDI-NE to reach this agreement, which demonstrates a good path forward in meeting our region’s future power and climate change needs while also promoting the general good of Vermont communities today. With several other transmission projects currently under consideration across New England, CLF will continue our critical role of watchdog to assure that our communities, environment, and climate are protected and our future power supply is clean and reliable.

Farmland vs. Asphalt

May 26, 2015 by  | Bio |  2 Comment »

Proposed Site of Exit 4 Development 5-22-15

Proposed Site of Exit 4 Development 5-22-15

Valuable farmland in Vermont is under siege. A proposal is on tap to build more than 1 million square feet of hotel, conference center, industry, shops and houses on very valuable farmland at a rural highway exit.

CLF joined over 50 local residents at a contentious initial hearing for the project. Going forward, CLF and partners will participate in the state permitting (Act 250) proceedings.

Vermont’s  thriving farm economy, our healthy environment and our healthy climate all depend on good farmland. Vermont’s many acres of valuable farmland support a wide and diverse range of agriculture. From apple orchards and berry farms, to community gardens, dairy, and livestock farms, these all rely on good quality farmland.

That good quality farmland pays us back in more than just the food and crops it grows. Local farms help Vermont be more resilient to the effects of climate change. They also help reduce carbon emissions that contribute to global warming. And there is not a single Vermonter who doesn’t appreciate and value the open space and broad vistas that many of our farms provide. Our farms make Vermont unique. And our farms need good farmland to thrive.

Unfortunately good farmland is increasingly in short supply in Vermont. Good farmland takes thousands of years to create. Though Vermont is fortunate to have had the help of glaciers and rivers many years ago to create the valuable asset we now have, it is our responsibility to keep those assets intact and available for future generations.

As the impacts of climate change grow more severe, maintaining our farms and our ability to grow food and crops becomes more important than ever.

As Vermont moves out of the recent recession, the pressures increase on Vermont farmland. Pavement is not an agricultural product. Yet traveling along any of Vermont’s major roadways shows that farmland outside of town is sprouting more concrete than crops.

Bulldozing our rural farmland for massive new developments makes it harder to farm the land that remains. Farmers should not be left trying to piece together a viable farm from the few small parcels left behind.  Instead Vermont should strengthen the ways it encourages development in town and provide stronger protection for farmland outside of town. This helps farms create a bulwark against sprawling development. Keeping more services and buildings in town, surrounded by farms nearby, fosters community and helps us tackle global warming pollution. Our food is closer, providing more opportunities to drive less and burn less polluting fossil fuels.

Unfortunately, some plans for over-developing valuable farmland move Vermont in the wrong direction. The massive development planned for farmland at Exit 4 in Randolph is just one example. Others include a planned new truck stop and convenience store near the highway outside of Montpelier, and a new shopping mall on Route 7 south of Rutland. All of these are chewing away at farm fields.

Vermont’s landmark land use law, Act 250, provides valuable protections for farmland. As with water quality, air quality and community resources, Act 250 prohibits some building on valuable farm resources because it is just too damaging to the resource. In other situations, Act 250 requires projects to be designed in a way that leaves valuable agricultural soils available for farming.

The effectiveness of the Act 250 protections for valuable farmland is being sorely tested. Last year, in South Burlington, a developer sought a determination that a forty acre field with a farmhouse and barn on site was not in fact suitable for farming. Thankfully that request was rejected.

At the Randolph highway exit, the plan is to build over one million square feet — roughly equal to the size of 10 big box stores — in a rural and fairly undeveloped area, with over 100 acres of exceptionally high quality farmland.

When it comes to farming, Vermont should not erode its strong Act 250 protections. Instead Vermont’s support for farming should be as hardworking as its farmers. Our actions speak louder than our words.  We cannot say we support farming if our decisions drive more and more farmers off the land.