By Mike Saint
Chairman and CEO, The Saint Consulting Group
Politicians set policy on a national or international basis or on a state-wide basis but get elected locally. And therein lies the conundrum.
Congressmen and Governors tell the Washington Post or the BBC or CNN or the New York Times or the Sierra Club and Greenpeace, how much they are against global warming and carbon footprints and how they believe in wind power, or solar power. Then they go home and please the local people who contribute to their political campaigns or who vote for them — those who say “Not In My Backyard” — by helping to block wind farms, solar power installations, transmission lines and storage facilities for spent nuclear power fuel rods.
At the state level, Governors face the same problem. They want to implement a state-wide energy policy that encourages wind power, for example, and then have members of their own party side with the locals who say “not here.”
In New Jersey and Massachusetts, the Democratic Governors have recently proposed legislation that seeks to let certain energy facilities avoid the local land use approval process to speed up their approval.
According to the Boston Globe, the Massachusetts bill, the so-called Wind Energy Siting Reform bill, would create new rules governing where wind projects can be built, who can issue permits, and how they can be appealed. It would continue to allow developers who have had their projects rejected by municipalities to appeal to the courts, but it would allow private groups who oppose approved projects to appeal only to a state board. Appeals of the board’s decisions could then be heard only by the Supreme Judicial Court.
“Massachusetts is a state of independent communities,” said Eleanor Tillinghast, who lives in the Berkshires, where the turbines will most likely be erected. “If this bill is passed, it will undermine towns’ abilities to develop in the ways they think are most appropriate.”
In New Jersey, according to www.NJ.com, “S1303 would make it difficult at the very least for local officials to prohibit building solar, photovoltaic or wind energy facilities in areas zoned for other purposes.
“It does so by extending the scope of facilities deemed “inherently beneficial” to cover those very types of renewable energy sources. Previous court rulings had defined such a facility as one that, by its very nature and purpose, “fundamentally serves the public good and promotes the general welfare.”
“They include – among others – schools, day care centers, hospitals and group homes. Being inherently beneficial can spur a zoning variance, an exception of sorts, that would allow such a facility to be built on land zoned for another purpose, such as industrial or residential.
“Township officials here say S1303 can open a Pandora’s box by taking away local officials’ power over their own zoning.
“They have repeatedly said they applaud green energy efforts. But they fear solar, photovoltaic and wind energy facilities will be given what Committeeman John “Terry” O’Neill calls “carte blanche” in gobbling up acres that otherwise can be used by businesses employing more workers and supplying tax ratables to the community.”
The inherent difficulty with this approach – taking away the NIMBY’s rights to say “no” – is that voters don’t take kindly to politicians who deny them the right to protect their own community. “Why should I and my neighborhood be forced to suffer the negative effects of a windfarm – noise, visual pollution, etc – for the benefit of someone else or to accommodate the public policies of some other group whic doesn’t live here?” a NIMBY spokesman might argue.
The UK has tried to fast track energy facilities by exempting them from the normal local land use approval process. But the “Eco-Towns” for new housing and the nuclear power plants for energy have still not been approved. And one wind power turbine manufacturer was so fed up with wind facilities being vetoed at the local level, that they announced they would leave the UK.
Another difficulty with exempting some projects, but not all, from the land use approval process is a requirement that some, but not all, be labeled “inherently beneficial”.
But who decides that a wind farm, proposed by a private profit making company, is more “inherently beneficial” than say, affordable housing, proposed by a non profit organization? Where does one draw the line? Who make the final decision that one project is “inherently beneficial” and another is not, and therefore must go through the normal approval process?
I predict the efforts to strip local voters of their rights to say “Not In My Backyard” will fail and politicians trying to end run the process in favor of their vision of “inherently beneficial” projects will be looking for a new line of work after the next election.
Mike Saint is chairman and CEO of The Saint Consulting Group, email firstname.lastname@example.org