BURRILLVILLE – As the Energy Facility Siting Board gets ready to issue a decision on whether or not a Chicago-based developer will be permitted to build a 1,000-megawatt power plant in a forested area off of Wallum Lake Road, Burrillville officials continue to call for reform in the state’s approval process, and have submitted legislation for the second consecutive year in hopes to change the law.
“A few years ago we recognized the problems with this act,” said Town Manager Michael Wood of the state law governing how such proposals are evaluated. “It’s still a problem, and if we don’t resolve it, it’s going to be a problem not just for Burrillville, but communities across the state.”
Among issues cited with the current 30-year-old law is the lack of local control on such projects, and developers’ potential ability to gain approval without having a plan that adheres to a municipality’s codes and ordinances.
“What the law does is allows the EFSB to act as the Planning Board, the Zoning Board…,” said Wood. “I’m not sure they’re qualified.”
Leah Donaldson, special counsel retained by the town in its battle against the energy company, has led the way in crafting the new bill, an update on similar legislation submitted during the 2018 legislative session. That bill passed the House, but died after a hearing before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
“One of the things that happened last year, was labor came out against the bill,” said Wood. “I’m totally convinced that they were just doing it on a political basis. I don’t think they actually looked at the bill. It was basically doomed from the beginning.”
Donaldson said the new legislation addresses some of the issues that may have caused the first bill to fail.
Members of the town’s delegation who hope push the legislation forward have also changed. Former Town Councilor David Place won the District 47 House seat from three-term Rep. Cale Keable in November, and Republican Jessica de la Cruz secured the seat held for two decades by retiring Sen. Paul Fogarty.
The loss of well-established General Assembly leadership, however, is not necessarily an advantage for the town’s agenda. Keable served as chairman of the House Judiciary Committee. The legislation is still expected to receive support from one senior member at the state house: five-term Rep. Brian Newberry, who served as House Minority Leader from May 2011 through November 2016.
Town Councilor Raymond Trinque suggested that Donaldson should help guide the recently elected representatives.
“We have two brand new legislators,” said Trinque. “They’re going to be our point people, and they’re new at it.”
But Councilor Donald Fox said he’s excited to work with a group that he knows is on the same page.
“That’s like a breath of fresh air to me, and I’m looking forward to it,” Fox said.
Burrillville Land Trust President Paul Roselli asked the council on Wednesday, Jan. 9 to hold the draft legislation and give the public a chance to weigh in, citing some issues with the document.
“The preamble and this document is still fossil fuel centric – that is, all references are to an industry that uses coal, oil and methane gas to generate electricity,” said Roselli, reading from a statement on behalf of the trust.
“The key thing here for me in reading the document is that the preamble is still a holdover from the 1930s,” Roselli said.
Councilor Jeremy Bailey suggested that the draft bill be put on the council’s January 23 agenda to allow public comment.
But others on the council noted urgency in moving the bill forward with the start of the new legislative session.
“I am not going to support holding this back,” said Fox. “It’s not necessary. This is not to downplay the input of our community, but we have experts who have worked on this for over four years.”
Bailey said for those who wish to comment on the bill, “I’d encourage everyone to reach out directly to our state legislators.”
The council voted unanimously to adopt the legislation as presented, and send copies out to every community in Rhode Island. The town’s delegation is expected to introduce the bill at the General Assembly in the upcoming weeks, and meet with councilors on Monday, Feb. 11 to discuss progress.
A full copy of the legislation, redlined from the version submitted last year, is linked below, although town officials noted that it will likely continue to be altered as supporters navigate political opposition.
“There will be changes made,” said Wood. “We’ll find out what the poison pills are. We’ll work, if we can, to compromise.”