Jurisdiction over a proposed five-turbine wind project that would straddle the towns of New Ipswich and Temple may bypass the towns’ review process and come under the state’s purview. Timbertop Wind, a subsidiary of Austin, Texas-based Pioneer Green, submitted its plans to the N.H. Site Evaluation Committee on Dec. 21, asking the state’s review board for large-scale energy projects to take the case.
The proposed $25 million project would erect five Siemens SWT turbines, with two turbines planned to be located in New Ipswich and three turbines in Temple, according to Timbertop’s application to the SEC.
The state Site Evaluation Committee has a history of handling large-scale wind projects, and is currently in the later stages of the review process for a project in Antrim that would erect 10 turbines on the Tuttle Hill ridgeline and Willard Mountain, with a decision expected to be given at the beginning of February.
For Timbertop, that process is just beginning. The SEC received its application on Dec. 21, according to N.H. Department of Environmental Services Administrator Tim Drew. Now, a subcommittee made up of representatives from several regulatory commissions will be formed, and the members will review the application to determine whether it contains certain elements, such as site maps and financial information. If the application is determined to be complete, the subcommittee will vote on whether to accept the application or reject it, Drew said in an interview Friday.
If the SEC does accept the application, they will take jurisdiction of the project in accordance with state statute, RSA 126-H:6-a. After that, a public hearing will follow to allow Timbertop Wind to outline the project both to the committee and to the communities, where the turbines would be built.
The SEC’s public hearings are generally held in the town where the facility would be constructed. Since Timbertop’s application would be for turbines in both New Ipswich and Temple, there could be two hearings or a joint one for both towns, according to Drew.
If the SEC rejects Timbertop’s application, the company will have to seek approval for site plans from the municipal boards in both Temple and New Ipswich.
Timbertop has been a presence in the town of New Ipswich for four years now, conducting meteorological studies on both the Binney Hill area and Kidder Mountain, and going through a design review process with the Planning Board for a proposed project on Binney Hill that has since been abandoned.
New Ipswich responded to the company’s interest in building a wind farm in the area of Binney Hill by establishing both a small- and large-scale wind ordinance in 2010, and then revising its large-scale ordinance in 2012.
“We anticipated that was coming our way,” said New Ipswich Planning Board member Oliver Niemi, referring to Timbertop’s proposed wind project, in an interview Friday. “They received approval to put up a meteorological tower to test wind capacity.”
If a town does not have an ordinance in place when an application for a wind project is submitted, Niemi said, the requirements for the project default to state requirements for wind energy facilities. New Ipswich and Temple’s requirements are more stringent than those of the state, especially when it comes to noise restrictions. The SEC is not bound by local ordinances, however, it often takes them into account.
Timbertop Wind switched from looking at Binney Hill to Kidder Mountain in 2011, due to the proximity of an existing energy transmission line. Since the Kidder Mountain site overlapped land in Temple as well as New Ipswich, Temple also adopted a wind ordinance in 2012.
Adam Cohen, the vice president of Timbertop Wind, said the company had multiple reasons for asking the SEC to take the application for the project under its review. First of all, he said, the site covers two towns and, while both towns have ordinances relating to wind energy restrictions, the restrictions in the two towns are not the same.
Dealing with two separate zoning and planning boards and two separate ordinances will make it difficult to move forward, said Cohen in a phone interview Friday.
“This will eliminate duplication in the process. Working with two zoning and planning boards, it’s difficult to plan one project. We’ve worked with the community up until now, and we’ll continue that. This is a just way to keep the process linear and uniform,” he said.
Cohen said another reason for going to the SEC was that he is not a supporter of some of the changes made to the New Ipswich ordinance in 2012, especially the updated restrictions on noise. In 2010, when New Ipswich originally adopted a wind ordinance, up to 50 decibels of noise was allowed anywhere on the property of a non-participating landowner, or 45 decibels inside any occupied structure owned by a non-participating landowner.
When the town of New Ipswich voted to amend that ordinance in 2012, the noise restrictions were tightened, reducing that number to 33 decibels allowed anywhere on a non-participating landowners’ property. At the same time, Temple adopted its own large-scale wind ordinance, and it too cites the 33 decibel requirement. In a opinion piece submitted to the Ledger-Transcript on Jan. 31 , Cohen wrote that the noise restriction would essentially result in a “ban on wind.”
“While the ordinance originally adopted in New Ipswich in 2010 was reasonable, the ordinances as adopted in New Ipswich and Temple in 2012 impose substantive requirements inconsistent with SEC precedent and state law,” Timbertop’s recent application to the SEC states.
In the past, the SEC has generally been more lenient in noise restrictions than the New Ipswich zoning ordinance allows, according to Timbertop’s application.
Timbertop Wind is currently conducting sound studies on the Siemens SWT turbines the application proposes to use. The company has not made any final decisions on the height of the proposed turbines, although Cohen estimated they would likely measure between 480 and 500 feet tall.
New Ipswich Planning Board Vice-Chair Liz Freeman said in an interview Thursday that the board drafted the noise amendment after seeking the advice of expert consultants, and felt that it was the right level for a rural town like New Ipswich.
“I think we researched that carefully and sought the consultants that were very experienced in community noise impacts,” said Freeman. “The Planning Board did not think it would be prohibitive and we did not think it was unreasonable. It was based on recommendations from consultants of many years of experience on community noise issues.”
Niemi of the Planning Board agreed. “I think it’s a good, comprehensive ordinance,” he said.
Temple Planning Board Chair Rose Lowery said in an interview Thursday that she wasn’t willing to comment on the application until the board had convened on the matter. The board is currently in the process of scheduling a joint meeting with the Select Board to discuss the application and make a decision on how they will proceed, said Lowery.
“It’s just too soon to really say anything about it. We haven’t met together to review,” said Lowery. The board will also likely discuss the matter at its upcoming Jan. 2 meeting, said Lowery, although the main focus will be finalizing changes to the town’s zoning ordinances for the 2013 ballot.
“This was a big surprise. We have a completely full plate of things to do, so it’s not easy to get through this additional information,” said Lowery, referring to 388-page application Timbertop has submitted to the SEC.
Timbertop has been working with and listening to the concerns of the residents and boards in both towns, Cohen said, noting that it has reduced the size of the project from 12 turbines, which would produce a total of 24 megawatts, to five turbines, which would produce 15 megawatts of electricity. While it’s a drop in energy production, Cohen said the company felt the reduction was more in line with what the town was looking for in a wind energy facility.
And even if the SEC should vote to take the project, Timbertop would still be involved with the town moving forward with the project, said Cohen. The company plans to seek a Payment in Lieu of Taxes, or PILOT agreement, with both towns that would designate a flat fee plus a percent increase to be paid by the company every year, instead of a tax payment based upon the facilities’ assessed value.
Any PILOT agreements would have to be approved by the select boards in both towns.
Freeman said that if the SEC did decide to take jurisdiction of the project away from the towns, she hoped that the ordinances approved by the voters would be taken into account.
“The Planning Board spent a lot of time researching what we think is a good ordinance. One that is balanced and protects the town, and still allows large wind energy systems that don’t have an adverse impact on the town. And we hope that ordinance will be respected,” said Freeman.