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In re Petition of Swanton Wind LLC

Supreme Court of Vermont

December 21, 2018

In re Petition of Swanton Wind LLC

          On Appeal from Public Utility Commission, Anthony Z. Roisman, Chair

          Alison Milbury Stone and Leslie A. Cadwell of Legal Counselors & Advocates, PLC, Burlington, for Appellant.

          Thomas J. Donovan, Jr., Attorney General, Justin Kolber, Assistant Attorney General, and Geoffrey Commons, Public Service Department, Montpelier, for Appellees State of Vermont, Department of Public Service and Agency of Natural Resources.

          PRESENT: Reiber, C.J., Skoglund, Robinson, Eaton and Carroll, JJ.

          REIBER, C.J.

         ¶ 1. Petitioner Swanton Wind LLC appeals three determinations by the Public Utility Commission. We strike the Commission's final order in part, and we reverse and remand in part.

         ¶ 2. In September 2016, petitioner requested the Public Utility Commission[*] to grant a certificate of public good (CPG), pursuant to 30 V.S.A. § 248, which would authorize petitioner to build a twenty-megawatt wind-powered electric-generation facility in Swanton, Vermont. At the same time, petitioner paid the Agency of Natural Resources a $100, 000 fee as part of its CPG petition, which was required by 30 V.S.A. § 248b. During the next nine months, petitioner and the other parties to the proceeding-which included numerous intervenors-engaged in substantial activity, including filing and responding to motions and letters, responding to discovery, participating in a workshop, and participating in prehearing conferences with the Commission.

         ¶ 3. In early June 2017, the parties submitted filings with proposed schedules for how the proceeding should continue. As part of those filings, the Department of Public Service argued, with the support of other parties, that the petition and evidence were insufficient, and the Commission should not set a comprehensive schedule until petitioner had clarified whether it intended to supplement its filings. In particular, the Department was concerned that petitioner's filings lacked a final system-impact study. In a June 22, 2017 order, the Commission agreed, finding that it needed a final system-impact study prior to the technical hearings in order to evaluate the petition. Petitioner filed a motion to reconsider, arguing that the Commission was deviating from its prior practice; in other cases, the Commission had evaluated petitions without a final system-impact study, instead issuing a conditional CPG and permitting the petitioner to complete the final system-impact study after the CPG was issued. The Commission denied petitioner's motion to reconsider.

         ¶ 4. Petitioner then requested to withdraw its petition pursuant to Vermont Rule of Civil Procedure 41(a)(1), and it requested that the Commission return the $100, 000 fee it had paid to the Agency of Natural Resources pursuant to 30 V.S.A. § 248b. In response, several parties argued that the Commission should require petitioner to pay attorney's fees. In a January 3, 2018 order, the Commission denied petitioner's request to return the § 248b fee, saying it lacked jurisdiction to do so. It granted voluntary dismissal without prejudice pursuant to Rule 41(a)(2), rather than Rule 41(a)(1). It did not award attorney's fees, as the parties requested, because it found no exceptional circumstances to justify an award. No party appealed that finding. However, the Commission did order that the parties could request attorney's fees and costs for this proceeding if petitioner chose to refile the petition in the future. Petitioner appealed.

         ¶ 5. On appeal to this Court, petitioner requests that we reverse the Commission's determination that it could not evaluate the petition without a final system-impact study. It also requests that we reverse the Commission's refusal to refund the § 248b fee and its determination that parties could request attorney's fees in the future.

         ¶ 6. We decline to address petitioner's first claim of error. We lack jurisdiction to review an unappealed determination the Commission made prior to voluntary dismissal without prejudice. See V.R.A.P. 3 (authorizing appeal by right of final judgment); V.R.A.P. 5, 5.1 (authorizing interlocutory and collateral final-order appeals by permission prior to final judgment).

         ¶ 7. Next, we address whether the Commission has jurisdiction to refund petitioner's fee. In general, our review of Commission decisions is deferential. In re UPC Vt. Wind, LLC, 2009 VT 19, ¶ 2, 185 Vt. 296, 969 A.2d 144. This deference extends to the Commission's "interpretation of statutes it implements and its rules." In re GMPSolar-Richmond, LLC, 2017 VT 108, ¶ 19, __ Vt.__, 179 A.3d 1232. But we do not "abdicate our responsibility to examine a disputed statute independently and ultimately determine its meaning." In re Stowe Cady Hill Solar, LLC, 2018 VT 3, ¶ 20, __ Vt.__, 182 A.3d 53 (quotation omitted). In our independent examination, we employ our usual tools of statutory construction. See In re MacIntyre Fuels, Inc., 2003 VT 59, ¶ 7, 175 Vt. 613, 833 A.2d 829 (mem.) (interpreting Act 250 independently and according to rules of statutory construction despite general deference to Environmental Board expertise). We look first to the plain language of the statute, and, if this is insufficient to determine legislative intent, we consider "the broad subject matter of the statute, its effects and consequences, and the purpose and spirit of the law." Id. (emphasizing that "our fundamental objective is to discern and implement the intent of the Legislature").

         ¶ 8. A petitioner who is requesting a CPG under 30 V.S.A. § 248 must pay a fee at the time it files its CPG petition, as required by 30 V.S.A. § 248b. Section 248b creates a formula to calculate the fee's amount and directs that it be paid into the "Natural Resources Management Fund and allocated to the Agency [of Natural Resources]." The fee is "for the purpose of supporting the role of the Agency of Natural Resources . . . in reviewing applications" pursuant to §§ 248 and 248a. Id. Section 248 directs that the Agency "shall appear as a party in any proceedings held under this subsection, shall provide evidence and recommendations concerning any findings to be made . . ., and may provide evidence and recommendations concerning any other matters to be determined by the Commission in such a proceeding." Neither § 248 nor § 248b says anything about a mechanism to refund the fee, and § 248b does not mention the Commission.

         ¶ 9. The Agency argues that, because the fee is paid into a specified fund and allocated to the Agency, the Commission lacks the authority to order a refund of the § 248b fee. We disagree. As an agency, the Commission "is a body of special and statutory powers, as to which nothing is presumed in favor of its jurisdiction. . . . [Its] powers include only those expressly granted by the Legislature and such incidental powers as are necessarily implied to carry out its express grant." In re Vt. Elec. Power Producers, Inc., 165 Vt. 282, 289, 683 A.2d 716, 719-20 (1996). Section 9 of Title 30 grants the Commission "the powers of a court of record in the determination and adjudication of all matters over which it is given jurisdiction," including the power to "render judgments, make orders and decrees, and enforce the same by any suitable process issuable by courts in this State." 30 V.S.A. § 9; see also Vt. Elec. Power Producers, 165 Vt. at 293, 683 A.2d at 722 (affirming that Commission has "all the powers of a trial court" in proceedings over which it has jurisdiction). We do not determine here the full reach of the ...


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