Category Archives: Natural Resources

Senator’s letter to resorts rankles ski industry, fellow lawmakers

MONTPELIER — A state senator has sent a letter to each of the seven ski resorts utilizing state land asking them to renegotiate leases, but the closing paragraph he included has some lawmakers concerned he has issued a thinly-veiled threat to raise their taxes if they do not agree.

Chittenden County Sen. Tim Ashe, a Democrat and the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, sent the letters on Senate letterhead last week to Bromley, Okemo, Killington, Stowe, Smuggler’s Notch, Burke and Jay Peak. He signed each letter as chairman of Senate Finance.

Ashe’s letters follow the release of a report by State Auditor Doug Hoffer last month that found the resorts’ lease payments to the state have not kept pace with the resorts’ economic growth.

Sen. Tim Ashe

Sen. Tim Ashe

The long-term leases with the resorts range between 50 and 100 years. Bromley was the first resort to strike a deal with the state in 1942.

Over the last 50 years, resorts that once had just a handful of lifts and few facilities have become year-round enterprises. Many are now owned by large out-of-state corporations, according to Hoffer’s report. The resorts now feature new lodges, hotels, condominiums, retail stores, golf courses, waterparks and other amenities that generate significantly more revenue than the fledgling days of Vermont’s ski industry.

Between 2003 and 2013, development at the seven resorts led to increases in sales of goods and services, property values and revenues from excise taxes, all of contributed to more state revenue.

But lease payments for the 8,500 acres of public lands used by resorts have not kept the same pace of growth this decade as other tax revenues generated from the resorts. The leases were designed to capture a percentage of lift tickets, typically 5 percent of lift ticket sales. Lift ticket sales became a secondary source of revenue as the resorts evolved, however, according to the report, and the leases only generate about $3 million a year for the state.

Ashe’s letters ask the resorts to willingly open negotiations, even though most do not expire for several more decades. Bromley’s lease, for example, expires in 2032. Ashe pointed out in his letter, as Hoffer’s report did, that renegotiating makes sense because “the ski world of the lease’s origins would be unrecognizable today.”

“It is for that reason I ask you to renegotiate voluntarily your lease terms or agree to amend your lease to have it expire on December 31, 2016. Either of these options would allow for thoughtful, unhurried negotiations between the State and you to arrive at modern lease terms reflecting the great changes in the ski industry and in the revenue streams it features,” Ashe wrote.

It is the closing paragraph that has drawn the ire of some fellow lawmakers, however.

“From time to time, the Legislature considers various proposals that would have an impact on various classes of taxpayers. In terms of the ski industry, I have heard Legislators propose eliminating the property tax exemption on snowmaking equipment and other assets, and suggest creating a special non-homestead tax rate for ski areas. It seems to me that voluntary renegotiation of your lease with the State is a far superior method of striking the right balance of proceeds for the right to use public land,” Ashe wrote.

Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, whose district includes Bromley Mountain, said Ashe’s letter is a clear threat to try to eliminate tax exemptions currently enjoyed by ski resorts if they refuse to scrap their current leases.

“It is very concerning when those in power look to interfere in contractual agreements using overt threats. This is an overreach and I hope it doesn’t create a precedent that will affect the credibility of our state’s reputation,” she said.

Komline said she learned about the letters Wednesday and planned to reach out to officials at Bromley and work with the Vermont Ski Areas Association to help ease any concerns the resorts have.

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann

Rep. Heidi Scheuermann, R-Stowe, said she, too, found out about the letters on Wednesday after officials at Stowe Mountain Resort sent her a copy. Stowe’s lease is good until 2057, Scheuermann said.

“I think it’s inappropriate. That said, he can do it. I’m sure Stowe will have a response for him. They have a legal lease that is extremely beneficial to the state of Vermont and I expect they are going to maintain that lease,” she said.

Ashe said Wednesday his letters are not a threat and should not be seen as one.

“It’s reading the auditor’s report and saying that even though they are under no obligation to open their leases … it seems to be maybe appropriate that they do so,” he said. “It’s not about a threat. It’s hoping they’ll just do it.”

Making a threat to strip away tax exemptions should the resorts decline to renegotiate leases would be bad policy for the state, according to Ashe.

“I would never threaten a taxpayer, because I don’t think that’s a very good tax policy. But rather, saying, in thinking about the use of public lands, it’s better to voluntarily step up because the proposals that are from time to time directed at them or any other industry are usually sort of inartful,” he said.

Still, lawmakers question the tax exemptions every year, and Ashe said he wanted to point out that some lawmakers could look to use it as leverage to ensure the leases are fair.

“People gravitate to that … and say, ‘Why do we do that?’ It raises this whole issue about why that equipment and stuff is exempt,” Ashe said. “And then, there’s always the discussion about, ‘Well, they do get a pretty sweet deal.’ People articulate it in different ways.”

Senate President Pro Tem John Campbell, D-Windsor, said he was not aware that Ashe was planning to send the letters. He said would discuss the matter with him.

“I have not had an opportunity to discuss this with Sen. Ashe, nor have I seen the letter,” he said Wednesday. “It’s certainly an issue that I will discuss with him.”

Bennington County Democratic Sens. Dick Sears and Brian Campion, whose districts include Bromley, both said they had concerns with Ashe’s approach.

“There has to be a balance here. I don’t want to do anything to jeopardize Bromley’s ability to attract people to Bennington County,” Campion said.

“Right now people are in a desperation mode. They’re looking (for revenue) in every corner,” Sears said. “I don’t think I want to force ski areas. I don’t want to do anything that impacts the tremendous relationship with our ski areas.”

Parker Riehle

Parker Riehle

Parker Riehle, president of the Vermont Ski Areas Association, said Wednesday the ski resorts were still crafting a response to Ashe. However, he said all are comfortable with the lease agreements in place.

“We certainly still stand by the leases and their terms as still a very good deal for both parties and a very favorable deal for the state of Vermont,” he said. “Overall it’s a really strong partnership.”

The federal government only gets 2.5 percent of lift ticket sales, on average, according to Riehle, and neighboring states get about 3 percent of lift ticket revenue.

“Vermont’s actually way ahead of the game and there’s been a couple of reports issue in that regard that back that up. We certainly are very comfortable and confident in the leases,” he said.

Additionally, the ski industry generates an estimated $100 million in various tax payments to the state, and provides about 12,000 jobs during the winter when other industries are typically laying workers off.

“You can’t just focus on the lease payments and think that they look too small,” he said.

Given the what the ski industry provides to the state, Riehle said the resorts should not be facing the threat of higher taxes.

“In light of the numerous revenue benefits to the state, we certainly don’t see a need to look for any additional tax burden on the ski areas. We certainly don’t want to see anything like that hanging over our heads,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Read Ashe’s letter to Bromley Mountain below:

Release: US Forest Service releases new snowmobiling rule

The U.S. Forest Service has released the final policy rule for managing snowmobile and other “over-snow” vehicle use on national forests and grasslands. As directed by court order, the policy requires that roads, trails and areas where over-snow vehicle (OSV) use can occur be specifically designated by local Forest Service managers. Previously, managers had the discretion to decide whether to designate specific areas for over-snow vehicle use on National Forest System lands.

In the new rule, an over-snow vehicle is defined as “a motor vehicle that is designed for use over snow and that runs on a track and/or a ski or skis, while in use over snow”.

“The Forest Service always seeks to provide a wide range of motorized and non-motorized recreational opportunities,” said U.S. Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell. “This policy maintains community input and local decision-making so that those with knowledge of local areas can decide how to best balance natural resource issues with legitimate recreational uses of national forest land.”

The new rule was the result of a 2013 federal court decision that the existing travel management rule violated the Executive Order governing off-road vehicle use on federal lands in giving the agency the discretion to determine whether to regulate over-snow vehicle use. The court ordered the Forest Service to issue a new rule consistent with the Executive Order.

While this is a significant change for western states with expansive open areas where over-snow vehicle trails and areas are not specifically designated, it will have little if any impact on how snowmobile opportunities on the Green Mountain National Forest (GMNF) are currently managed. The GMNF has a designated snowmobile/OSV trail system which the public can continue to use and which they will continue to refine. At this time the public may continue to ride on all trails posted as open to snowmobiles on the National Forest.

The GMNF Land & Resource Management Plan (Forest Plan) is fully consistent with the new rule and states that motorized vehicles shall not be allowed off NFS roads and trails and that motorized trail vehicles shall be allowed only on NFS roads and trails which are designated for that use. In addition, a Forest Supervisor order issued in April, 2010 prohibited operating OSVs off NFS roads except on trails designed for that use.

“We do not anticipate the need for any change in our Forest Plan nor in the way we currently manage the existing designated trail system”, said Acting Forest Supervisor, Dee Hines.

The GMNF does not currently have a comprehensive map of OSV designated trails available to the public and plans to produce one as soon as practicable.

Several uses are exempted in the new rule including: limited administrative use by the Forest Service; use of fire, military, emergency, or law enforcement vehicle for emergency purposes; law enforcement response to violations of law, including pursuit; over-snow vehicle use that is specifically authorized under a written authorization issued under Federal law or regulations; and use of a road or trail that is authorized by a legally documented right-of-way held by a State, county or other local public road authority.

The new rule will preserve existing decisions governing over-snow vehicle use that were made under previous authorities with public involvement; allow decisions for over-snow vehicle use to be made independently or in conjunction with decisions for other types of motor vehicle use; and require local units to create over-snow vehicle use maps separate from use maps for other kinds of motor vehicles.

Sorrell outlines state’s GMO case for lawmakers

MONTPELIER — Vermont Attorney General William Sorrell told the Senate Agriculture Committee Wednesday that he expects a judge to rule on dueling motions in the GMO labeling case within the next three months, which will help lay out a path for the rest of the case.

A host of food industry groups filed suit last year against the state’s GMO labeling law, set to take effect July 1, 2016, claiming it is unconstitutional. Sorrell briefed the committee Wednesday on the status of the case.

The plaintiffs have asked the judge for a summary judgment, claiming the state is restricting their free speech rights by forcing them to label products that contain GMOs. They also claim the state cannot prevent them from calling a product natural if it contains GMOs.

The state has filed a motion for dismissal of the lawsuit. Oral arguments have already been heard, and Sorrell said the state “attacked each count of the plaintiffs’ complaint.”

In some cases, restricting the right to speech can be unconstitutional, according to Sorrell.

“In first amendment free speech arena, there’s the freedom to speak or the freedom to remain silent. So, restricting speech can be a violation of free speech rights,” Sorrell said.

Attorney General William Sorrell testifies before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

Attorney General William Sorrell testifies before the Senate Agriculture Committee on Wednesday, Jan. 28.

Under the state’s GMO labeling law, the state is compelling food manufacturers to state whether or not food products have GMO ingredients. “They’re objecting, saying, ‘You are forcing us to speak on labels and we don’t want to,’” Sorrell said.

In this case, Sorrell said the state has argued that it is not unconstitutional, and courts have found such compelled speech to be constitutional in similar cases.

“On the compelled speech issue we suggest that there are legitimate governmental concerns about environmental issues and public health issues as it relates to genetically engineered products, and legitimate governmental interest to accommodate religious considerations for a segment of the population,” he said.

The state’s motion to dismiss cited a case from an appeals court in Washington, D.C., one step below the U.S. Supreme Court, in which the appeals court ruled that meat must be labeled with the country of origin. The court applied a lenient standard for the government to overcome, according to Sorrell.

“We suggest in our argument that this is very much akin to the country of origin required disclosure on meat products that we’re talking about here,” he said. “We should win on the compelled speech piece.”

And, unlike products that contain alcohol or tobacco and require health warnings, the required labeling requires facts to be disclosed, much like nutrition labels.

“Unlike those kinds of warnings, what our statute requires are simply factual assertions without sort of the taint or flavor, if you will, of saying, ‘Caution, these are hazardous to your health,’” Sorrell said. “These are akin to the … kinds of closures that you typically see on products for calories, fat content, salt and sugar and the like. The standard to which we should be held shouldn’t be a higher standard because it is just a factual assertion as opposed to a warning.”

Sorrell said he is also confident in the state’s argument for prohibiting the use of the term “natural” for GMO products.

“There is no first amendment right to make either false or misleading statements,” he said.

The state’s case points to a posting on the website of Monsanto, a biotechnology company that is part of the suit against the state, that describes GMOs as “plants or animals that have had their genetic makeup altered to exhibit traits that are not naturally theirs.”

“We say, ‘Listen, there’s no way you can say that this is natural,” Sorrell said.

Committee Chairman Sen. Robert Starr, D-Essex/Orleans, indicated he believes that posting will harm the plaintiffs’ case.

“They kind of shot themselves in the foot with that post,” Starr said.

The suit also claims an undue burden on interstate commerce. Sorrell told the committee that the law provided more than two years notice to food manufacturers of the pending labeling requirement.

“The state was very accommodating there,” he said.

And GMO labeling is already required in more than 60 countries and two other states, Connecticut and Maine, have passed labeling requirements, but those have yet to take effect.

“This is not Vermont as some island in the world that’s requiring labeling,” Sorrell said.

U.S. District Court Judge Christina Reiss is expected to issue a ruling on the initial motions within the next several months, according to Sorrell. That will inform both sides how the rest of the case will proceed, he said.

“I think we’re hoping to be on a track where whatever evidentiary proceeding we’re going to need to do will be done some time by late fall. Hopefully, a decision at the trial court [will happen], if not within this calendar year, then very early into the next calendar year,” he said.

neal.goswami@timesargus.com

Vermont calls more GMO hearings, extends comment deadline

MONTPELIER, Vt. (AP) — The Vermont Attorney General’s office is calling a second public hearing on the state’s rules to implement the ban on genetically modified organisms.

In addition to the second hearing scheduled for Feb. 4 at the Vermont Statehouse, the state has extended by two weeks the deadline for submitting written comments on the proposed rules.

The new deadline for written comments is Feb. 12.

Attorney General Bill Sorrell says officials are worried interested parties wouldn’t be able to get their comments in before the original deadline.

Last year the Vermont Legislature passed the nation’s first law to require the labeling of food made with GMOs.

A number of groups have filed suit to block the law, due to take effect in the summer of 2016.

House advances microbead ban

MONTPELIER — The Vermont House passed a bill Tuesday to ban microbeads in beauty products that have been found to cause harm to fish and other wildlife.

The House gave preliminary approval to H.4 with a unanimous voice vote. It was passed unanimously by the House Fish and Wildlife Committee on Friday.

The legislation, first brought to the attention of the House Fish and Wildlife Committee by Rep. Patti Komline, R-Dorset, has broad support across the political spectrum.

The small, plastic beads typically end up in the state’s waterways because they are too small to be filtered out at water treatment plants. The beads, which are found in thousands of personal care products, absorb toxic chemicals and can cause harm to fish and other animals that consume them.

Rep. David Deen speaks at a news conference Tuesday in support of banning microbeads in personal care products.

Rep. David Deen speaks at a news conference Tuesday in support of banning microbeads in personal care products.

“Vermonters do not need these tiny, plastic beads in their soap. They especially don’t need them if they are harming our aquatic life and threatening our waterways,” Taylor Johnson, an environmental advocate with VPIRG, said in a news conference ahead of Tuesday’s vote.

The bill would ban the manufacturing of the microbeads in Vermont on Jan. 1, 2017, and ban the sale of them on Jan. 1, 2018.

Advocates of the bill say there are several natural and biodegradable alternatives to plastic microbes on the market. Some major companies have already begun switching to those natural alternatives.

House Fish and Wildlife Committee Chairman Rep. David Deen, D-Putney, said banning microbeads is the first of many water quality bills the committee will advance this year.

“This is the first step in what’s going to be the year of water,” he said.

Vermont to add enforcement to Lake Champlain cleanup tools

ST. ALBANS, Vt. (AP) — Vermont’s top officials say legal enforcement of water quality rules on the state’s farmers is going to be one of the tools that will be used to help clean up Lake Champlain.

The enforcement could include civil fines, a loss of tax breaks for agricultural lands and the ability to limit livestock.

Agriculture Secretary Chuck Ross, Attorney General Bill Sorrell and others outlined the steps Monday during a meeting in St. Albans.

State officials say they need to zero in on a relatively small number of sources of pollution flowing into rivers that feed into the lake.

While enforcement is a possibility, Ross and Sorrell both say penalties would be used as a last resort on farms that refuse to comply with water quality efforts.

Text of Gov. Shumlin’s budget address

Sanders’ opposition notwithstanding, testimony on wind moratorium begins

Undaunted by the public recriminations issued by Sen. Bernard Sanders Monday, proponents of a moratorium on mountaintop wind began taking testimony Tuesday on a bill  that would halt new development for three years.

The bill suffered a tongue-lashing in Sanders’ Burlington office. It found a more hospitable host in the Senate Committee on Natural Resources today, where three of the committee’s five members – including chairman Bob Hartwell – have signed on as co-sponsors.

First up to testify on the record was Paul Burns, the same wind-energy advocate who had hours earlier suggested that supporting the moratorium was tantamount to rejecting the science behind climate change.

The senators didn’t appreciate his tone.

“Do you believe it’s possible to believe in the science of climate change and yet disagree with you on the construction of new wind farms on Vermont’s mountaintops?” Sen. Peter Galbraith asked the head of VPIRG.

“That’s an interesting question,” Burns replied, suggesting it’s difficult to know which is worse – not believing in climate change and opposing wind because you think it’s unnecessary, or believing global warming is real and fighting against wind anyway.

Galbraith said it’s possible for one to appreciate fully the dangers of climate change, but to believe that the solutions to the global crisis don’t lie on the top of Vermont’s mountains.

Burns said that if climate-change believers want to shun the “most renewable” energy source available in Vermont, then it’s incumbent on them to identify an alternative.

“So far I have not seen any convincing evidence that opponents of wind have come up with a plan to provide for the state’s energy needs with an alternative to wind,” Burns said. “It’s conceivable somebody could come up with fusion technology, but I haven’t seen it yet senator.”

Galbraith told Burns to consider adopting a more civil tone as the debate progresses. A public conversation about wind is one worth having, Galbraith said. And people on his side ought not be demonized by people like Burns as global-warming deniers.

“I guess there are at least three flat-earthers here in this committee, in your view,” Galbraith said. “I wouldn’t characterize your position in an extreme way … And you owe to be respectful to people on the other side and not characterize them in such an extreme way.”

Supporters of the three-year ban, however, are beginning to seem less attached to the moratorium than they are to revising the regulatory process used to approve or deny wind projects. Included in the moratorium bill is a provision that would shift oversight of wind development from the Public Service Board to Act 250. Supporters of wind oppose that move – likely because the PSB’s ability to take into account “public good” gives a huge check in the ‘plus’ column to projects that general megawatts of electricity for use by public utilities.

“Leave the moratorium out of it for a second – let’s pretend the bill is an Act 250 bill,” Hartwell said. “What is wrong with putting (wind projects) in Act 250? We’re not talking about killing off wind. We’re talking about process.”

Supporters of the wind moratorium might have suffered a public attack from Sanders Monday. But the troops might be rallying elsewhere. The Lamoille County Democratic Party is drafting a resolution in support of the moratorium that could come up for a vote at the group’s next monthly meeting.

Final stand today for Death with Dignity

Reporters are counting down the minutes as the Senate readies for a floor session this afternoon in which lawmakers are expected to take up – wait for it – a bill that would prohibit minors from using tanning beds.

It isn’t the underlying bill of course that’s attracting so much attention, but the death-with-dignity amendment attached to it by the Senate Committee on Health and Welfare earlier this week.

The controversial legislation doesn’t stand much of a chance. Lt. Gov. Phil Scott, whose constitutional duties including serving as grand overseer of the Vermont Senate, will rule the amendment not germane to the tanning bill, and strip it from consideration.

In an open letter to Scott shipped to media outlets earlier this morning, the chairman of the Patient Choices Vermont – the state’s leading right-to-die advocacy group – urges the Republican to reconsider his ruling:

“In questions like this, that have been well discussed and bottled up for many, many years, and where opinions have crystallized, we would respectfully ask you to consider allowing the entire Senate to fully debate and vote – as opposed to yourself or 2 or 3 Senators (on either side of the issue) being the issue’s final arbiter.”

Don’t expect any shocking turnabouts though.

Peter Shumlin, who has long championed death with dignity, said yesterday that much as he supports the legislation, it would be inappropriate to tack it onto the tanning bill.

Though the Senate should be allowed to cast what he calls a “vote of conscience,” “I also believe it should be done in a way that meets the Senate rules,” Shumlin said. “I used all the very persuasive powers I had with Sen. Campbell, Sears and others to put it to a vote in the Senate. We lost that battle, but I don’t think putting the bill on a non-germane bill is going to get us a vote.”

Lawmakers look to impose will on GMP/CVPS merger proposal

A coalition of lawmakers will look to sway the terms of a blockbuster utility merger with a proposed amendment to a renewable-energy bill Wednesday.

In a morning press conference at the Statehouse, lawmakers from all three major parties will introduce language that would effectively force the consolidated utility to pay ratepayers at Central Vermont Public Service Corp. a direct cash payment before any merger deal goes through.

The amendment, sponsored by Reps. Cynthia Browning (D-Arlington), Patti Komline (R-Dorset), Chris Pearson (P-Burlington) and Paul Poirier (I-Barre), deals with a so-called “windfall protection” clause that has become one of the more controversial aspects of the proposed merger between Green Mountain Power and CVPS.  

CVPS hit a financial rough patch early in the last decade when its long-term power contract with Hydro-Quebec forced the utility to pay above-market rates for wholesale electricity.

To stave off financial calamity, CVPS sought permission for a rate hike from the Public Service Board in excess of what the board’s conventional rate-setting formula would otherwise allow.

The board okayed the increase, but stipulated that ratepayers would be made whole if CVPS ever became financially healthy enough to attract a takeover bid.

AARP is leading a public campaign to make sure those cash payments are issued before the merger goes through. The $21 million AARP says is due to ratepayers amounts to $76 for each of CVPS’ 137,000 residential customers. Commercial customers would enjoy payouts of about $352 on average, and industrial businesses could see checks in excess of $12,500.

GMP says it’s satisfied the windfall protection clause by offering to invest $40 million in an efficiency program that officials say would reap ongoing savings for all ratepayers. AARP and many lawmakers say it’s a raw deal however, and want cash in the pockets of customers.

The amendment will likely be ruled not germane to the underlying renewable energy bill. But lawmakers will have made their point. The opinions that matter most, of course, are those belonging to the three members of the Public Service Board, which has ultimately say over the terms of any merger deal.

Vt. hunters bag their 92-year-old buck

MONTPELIER — Vermont hunters have been blasting away at Rep. David Deen, chairman of the House Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources Committee, for removing a stuffed deer head that had been mounted on the wall of the committee room.

“We’re going nuts,” Keith Darby, the director of the Hunters, Anglers and Trappers Association of Vermont, said last week “You’ve got to be kidding me. Who told you to take this thing off the wall?” Continue reading