MONTPELIER, Vt. — A legislative panel voted 6 to 2 Thursday to weaken new rules designed to insulate Vermonters from commercial wind turbine noise.
The committee on administrative rules nixed a setback rule for siting new turbines.
The committee is reviewing a proposal drafted by the Public Utility Commission, which regulates energy projects in Vermont. PUC Commissioner Margaret Cheney and staff members defended the proposed noise standards before lawmakers at the Statehouse. They said they strike a balance between desirable wind energy and the health of Vermonters who would be subject to the low-middle frequency sounds emanating from machines nearly 500-feet tall.
The PUC proposed that the largest turbines be sited at least 5,000 feet from the nearest home, unless homeowners agreed to waive that requirement -- and that turbine noise be no louder than 39 decibels outside those homes, when measured at night.
But lawmakers voted to strike the setback rule in a party-line vote -- and some Democrats also expressed strong reservations over the proposed decibel sound limits calling them arbitrary and needlessly stringent.
Cheney said the PUC had settled on the 39 dB level to avoid sleep disturbance for residents and had spent hours holding hearings and reviewing "reams" of noise studies before reaching their conclusion.
"The implication is that this rule would restrict wind development to such an extent that it'd be a de facto moratorium," Cheney told lawmakers. "And if we believed that to be true we would not be offering this rule."
The panel will meet again in two weeks to consider new language from the PUC to clarify decibel limits.
Citizen groups who attended Thursday's four-hour hearing were furious -- accusing the panel of being "rigged" -- and rules committee chair Sen. Mark MacDonald of favoring wind developers who stand to earn millions from siting new projects over the health of Vermonters who live nearby.
Renewable Energy Vermont, an advocacy group, said in a statement that Vermont cannot afford to lose the economic and environmental benefits from new wind development.