The debate over wind power is sure to heat up soon in western Franklin County. As the recent flurry of articles and letters in local papers on a proposed cell tower in Shelburne attests, our ridgelines mean a lot to us. As I talk with friends and neighbors, I am aware of how few have contemplated the scale of wind-power projects or the possibility that they will be built here.
Wind turbines are large and getting larger all the time. The windmills erected in 1997 in Searsburg, Vt., stand 190 feet tall. The units proposed for Florida Mountain would rise 340 feet above the ground. GE has developed new models that are as high as 545 feet. Wind farms are designed to accommodate as many turbines as the site will allow. To construct them in Florida, builders would need new permanent roadways capable of handling 100-ton loads, turbine blades more than 100 feet long, thousands of yards of concrete for foundations, etc. By contrast, the cell towers proposed in Shelburne would be 40-60 feet above the tree line, and would not be installed in multiples or involve such massive components.
Under pressure to develop renewable energy, the state and federal governments are actively encouraging wind projects through a suite of mandates and tax incentives. Sixty percent of the revenue generated from these projects is directly attributable to these policies. At the same time, officials have remained silent on the matter of where to put them and how the associated environmental issues should be analyzed. Mainstream environmental groups, such as the Appalachian Mountain Club, Sierra Club and Nature Conservancy contribute to the problem by vaguely supporting wind power but carefully not specifying sites for fear of alienating donors in host communities. As a result, the politicians have conveniently left these difficult problems for local communities to grapple with. Bowing to political pressure, Governor Romney has publicly stated his opposition to Cape Wind, suggesting that such a project would be more appropriate out here.
I attended a two-day conference in Boston last March that was hosted by the American Wind Energy Association which specifically dealt with siting. Hundreds of people were there. There was an energy reminiscent of the gold-rush days. Many newly-formed wind companies were there, as well as representatives from European firms, all hoping to cash in on the boom. I sat next to a young man from Airtricity, an Irish firm. He was a modern-day prospector. His job was to map windy locations, their access to the grid, and access to the site from rail sidings for shipment of turbine parts. He was also researching demographic information that would give clues as to the potential willingness of communities to host wind farms. Scanning the list of attendees, I couldn’t see more than half a dozen people professionally associated with land-use planning.
I also participated in a May conference attended by persons on the other side of the issue from 10 states. As far as anyone knew, it was the first such gathering in the country. I heard tale after tale of communities being torn apart by the lure of potential tax dollars versus disruption of quality of life.
Most wind farms are private, for-profit enterprises and should be addressed by local communities just as they would consider other such endeavors. Here in Hawley, our current bylaws were drafted in an era before anyone had ever heard of wind farms. Under our current bylaws, commercial/industrial activities are assumed to involve buildings. But wind turbines are not buildings, as defined by our current bylaws, and thus not subject to local review! For these reasons wind-power bylaws were drafted by our planning board. A public hearing was held last week, and a town meeting vote will be scheduled soon.
What has become clear to me is that wind-farm siting is being driven by money and politics. Environmental concerns are taking a back seat. Hilltowns need to make sure their interests are taken into account when distant investors and persons advocating this technology, who won’t be hosting it in their backyards, eye our ridgelines for their projects.
In the end, whether you favor or oppose siting wind plants here, I think most everybody would agree that local input on their siting is important. Check with your planning board, read your local bylaws, and consider what steps should be taken to ensure that your community is not caught unprepared when a proposal lands on the desk at your Town Hall. As models, Hawley, Williamstown, Peru, and New Ashford (and possibly a few others by now) have wind-power bylaws on the books or waiting for local approval.