Each year, the Free Press editorial board names a Vermonter of the Year, someone who has made a difference this year or through a lifetime of work; someone who stepped up in a time of need or proved to be a leader; someone whose acts or accomplishmen AKI SOGA/FREE PRESS
For nearly two decades, Annette Smith has played a key part in making sure there is public debate over some of the most high-profile energy projects in Vermont.
As executive director of Vermonters for a Clean Environment, the Danby resident has organized communities, testified before government boards and advised residents who felt powerless in the face of state bureaucracies and big business.
“Annette listened to us, she understood what we were saying and took our situation seriously,” Richard Carroll of Bennington wrote in an email to the Free Press. Carroll was facing a major solar project near his property.
“She gave strength to our voice,” he wrote. “She showed us that you can make a difference, you can fight for what you believe is right and win.”
Smith recently has found herself making headlines facing off against major renewable energy projects, generally seen as helping to fight climate change by reducing reliance on fossil fuels. But Smith says she is no friend of oil and coal, or fossil fuels in general, living as she does off the grid on her solar-powered farm in Rutland County where she grows much of own food.
More than any particular issue in which she has been involved, or a specific position she has taken, Smith has distinguished herself by helping to raise awareness about the possible local impact of big projects and give voice to residents who find themselves up against much bigger forces.
For her persistent efforts as a citizen advocate, a vocation as old as Vermont itself, the Free Press editorial board names Annette Smith 2016 Vermonter of the Year.
A common thread among those who have sought out Smith is that she helps better the odds against a wealthier, more knowledgeable and better funded adversary.
In his nominating letter that carried 90 names, Edward Rybka of New Haven wrote, “Residents near these projects frequently lack the knowledge and resources to appear effectively before the Vermont Public Service Board, which heavily favors energy companies and developers.”
Smith traces her career as an environmental activist to an “intellectual effort” in 1998 when she became curious about plans to build power plants in Rutland and Bennington, and a natural gas pipeline to fuel them.
“I just didn’t understand why anyone would want to build 1,300-megawatt natural-gas power plants in Rutland and Bennington,” she said.
“I live off grid with solar and I have since 1989,” she said. “When this came along 10 years later, I just saw gas as the wrong direction for Vermont’s energy future.”
The following year, she founded Vermonters for the Clean Environment, which states as its mission, “fighting for the economic well-being of all Vermonters assuring appropriate use of our resources — our people, our land, our air and our water.”
Smith gained a higher profile across the state in 2009 as she threw in her lot with residents who were worried about the impact of a large-scale wind project proposed for the ridgeline of the Lowell Mountains in the Northeast Kingdom.
For Smith, her activism rises from a simple question, “How can I earn a living leaving the planet a better place, at least leave a light footprint?”
Even people who might disagree with the causes Smith champions would have to recognize how effective she has become in giving voice to people who feel themselves overmatched and overwhelmed by government bureaucracy.
Smith’s work on behalf of those challenging energy projects has drawn the attention of allies and foes. She says she often gets calls from people who are looking for information about the state process regulating energy projects or simply have nowhere else to turn.
In February, the state Attorney General’s Office dropped a criminal investigation into a complaint brought by a lawyer who represents a major solar and wind developer that Smith had practiced law without a license in the course of advising those preparing to testify before the Public Service Board.
Private citizens with limited means often find themselves outmatched from the start when they try to bring a challenge before the Public Service Board where, the AP reports, “utilities and project developers often hire lawyers at $250 per hour or more.”
The dissenting voice can be difficult to hear when one side has the force of the Governor’s Office, major environmental organizations and multinational companies at their back, as is often the case with renewable energy projects.
“Annette has been effective in helping individual residents of Vermont, statewide, bring their voices, questions and concerns to the forefront,” Carol Maroni of Craftsbury wrote in another letter nominating Smith for Vermonter of the Year. “She has been a rock for many of us when we have had no other place to turn.”
Smith said she feel uncomfortable in the spotlight and sees herself as being most effective helping others stand up for themselves.
“One of my mottos is to provide facts and information so people can make informed decisions,” she said. “The thing I’ve learned through 17 years of working with Vermonters is to never underestimate Vermonters.”
2016 Vermonter of the Year
Name: Annette Smith
Title: Executive director, Vermonters for a Clean Environment
Quote: "The thing I’ve learned through 17 years of working with Vermonters is to never underestimate Vermonters."
Vermonters for a Clean Environment
Past Vermonters of the Year
2015:Mary Powell, CEO, Green Mountain Power and breast cancer awareness campaigner.
2014: Hal Colston, community activist.
2013: Lois McClure, philanthropist.
2012: Bill McKibben, environmental journalist and climate change activist.
2011: Maj. Gen. Michael Dubie, Vermont National Guard adjutant general.
2010: Robert “Bob” Hoehl, philanthropist and co-founder of IDX.
2009: Beth Robinson, marriage equality advocate.
2008: Howard Dean, former governor and chairman of the Democratic National Committee.
2007: Daniel Fogel, president, University of Vermont.
2006: Tony Pomerleau, philanthropist and real estate developer.
2005: Peter Miller, photographer and writer who chronicles a disappearing Vermont.
2004: Maj. Gen. Martha Rainville, adjutant general, Vermont National Guard.
2001 - 2003: None named.
2000: John McCardell, president, Middlebury College.
1999: Rita Markley, director, Committee on Temporary Shelter (COTS).
1998: Darby Bradley, president, Vermont Land Trust.
1997: Jody Williams, anti-land mine activist, winner of Nobel Peace Prize.