When Ted Riehle won his crusade to end the scourge of billboards in the 1960s, the former state lawmaker helped create the Vermont brand. A Republican from South Burlington, Riehle was outraged at promotional signs going up on interstates, on the sides of barns, and along small byways. When his bill became law in 1968, it forced the removal of outdoor advertising and codified nature as the cornerstone of Vermont’s tourism industry.
“It’s completely part of our brand. We promote the fact that we don’t have billboards. It’s part of our aesthetic appeal,” Megan Smith, commissioner of the Department of Tourism and Marketing, told Vermont Watchdog. “We put it in a lot of our PR. Anytime we can mention the fact that we don’t have billboards, we do.”
According to Smith, 80 percent of Vermont is undeveloped. That unique characteristic catches the eye of tourists and creates a striking contrast with neighboring states.
“If you drive across the border to New York or Massachusetts, it assaults your eyes as soon as you get over that border,” she said. “Just like when you come in from there and it’s like, ‘Boom!’ It immediately takes the chaos out of your day. And that’s what we tell people.”
As one of four states that outlaws billboards — Alaska, Maine and Hawaii being the others — Vermont possesses an undisturbed natural beauty that is the trademark of its tourism marketing, and a top attraction for visitors worldwide.
The state ethic even made it into Title 10 of the Vermont Statutes:
Scenic resources are of great value, are distributed throughout the state, and have contributed greatly to economic development, by attracting tourists, permanent and part-time residents, and new industries and cultural facilities. The scattering of outdoor advertising throughout the state is detrimental to the preservation of those scenic resources, and so to the economic base of the state … (10 V.S.A. Chapter 21 § 482)
But an insidious new form of visual pollution is overtaking the state. Solar sprawl tied to Act 56 could wipe out thousands of acres of undisturbed land and transform Vermont from The Green Mountain State to The Solar Panel State.
With Vermont set to become the nation’s first all-green-energy economy, solar projects popping up from Bennington to Barton dwarf the billboard blight of the 1960s, and could erase tourism’s marketing message. In addition, residents report frustration with the siting process, and are beginning to grow restless over the state’s green-energy gold rush.
Towns lawyering up and spending money to fight Big Solar include New Haven, Bennington and Rutland Town. Siting controversies have also cropped up in Barton, Poultney, Dummerston, Pownal and Charlotte.
The number of solar arrays needed to meet the state’s green-energy goals is eye-popping. According to a prominent environmentalist at Lyndon State College, transitioning to a renewables-powered economy could require new solar installations covering 90,000 acres, about 1.5 percent of the land mass of the state.
“If you did it all with large solar farms, you’d be talking about something on the order of 200 or 300 large solar projects around the state. To a lot of people’s ears that sounds significant,” Benjamin Luce, associate professor of Physics and Sustainability Studies, told Vermont Watchdog.
Calculating the land required to meet Vermont’s green energy future is a challenge. Luce bases his numbers on Vermont being 90 percent renewable by 2050 — an aspirational, though non-legislated, goal espoused by many environmental groups and Gov. Peter Shumlin.
According to Luce’s calculations, Vermont will use 10 million megawatt-hours of energy in 2050, up from 6.5 million megawatt hours consumed now. To meet 90 percent of that total energy use with solar would require 9,000 megawatts of solar generation. Since one megawatt of solar panels occupies about 10 acres of land, adding 9,000 megawatts of new solar generation means Vermont can expect 90,000 acres covered in solar panels by 2050. The state’s total land mass is about 6 million acres.
“It’s a lot of acreage,” Luce said, adding that the number could be lower if panel efficiency doubles over the same period.
While Vermonters are certain to be infuriated by miles and miles of solar panels, Luce said the negative impact on Vermont’s natural landscapes can be minimized through well-planned siting. “If you were to take the equivalent of 200 to 300 farms’ worth of land and carefully site it, you could have a hell of a lot of solar projects that would be very much out of the way of people’s view and very thoughtfully chosen.”
But he noted siting is sparking resistance towns. Vermonters, who generally favor renewable energy, bristle at seeing large-scale renewable projects developed in their backyard.
“What’s driving the rising opposition to solar projects is the way it’s happening. Some solar developer will team up with some landowner they happen to find and then willy-nilly use the Public Service Board process to push it through,” Luce said. “So, naturally, the result is going to be badly chosen sites. … They’re grabbing at whatever comes up ad hoc and shoving it down people’s throats. The result is badly chosen sites and lots of opposition.”
The impact on tourism could be devastating.
John Kessler, chair of Vermont’s Travel Information Council, said tourists admire Vermont’s sign policy because it enhances the experience of Vermont’s landscapes.
“When asked what were the things you liked the most about your vacation stay in Vermont … the response that’s the most common of people surveyed is the lack of billboards and big signs,” Kessler said.
A Vermont Travel Information Study conducted by the Economic Planning Group of Canada in 1997 found that 89 percent of respondents said Vermont policies “preserved the quality of the landscape.” Visitors who gave comments to researchers often spoke of Vermont’s “truly beautiful scenery” and “pristine natural environment.”
With thousands of acres solar arrays ready to displace Vermont’s farms and forests, leaders of the state’s tourism outreach may have to surrender a key plank of their marketing strategy.
Asked why Vermont was opposed to billboards, Smith said, “Our brand doesn’t allow for that. Our brand is all about beauty and the naturalness of our state, and the working landscape. So that’s our brand, and how can you throw a bunch of ugly billboards in the middle, that there’s no control over?”
Contact Bruce Parker at [email protected]