A $12 million project to erect three tower-mounted electrical power-generation turbines on wind-swept Beaver Ridge in Freedom weathered three and a half hours of maneuvering Monday night by people on both sides of the controversial issue before a cautious town planning board finally voted to close the public hearing and cease accepting further information.
The board is now free to move on to its next order of business, actual consideration of the building permit application submitted to the town more than two months ago by Portland-based Competitive Energy Services (CES). The special board meeting will begin next Wednesday, Nov. 29, at 7 p.m., and, like this week’s hearing session, it will be held in the basement of the Freedom Congregational Church.
The board will consider CES’s application on a point-by-point basis under the town’s Commercial Development Review Ordinance. Controversial in its own right, this ordinance, which contains a special section setting standards for wind power development, was adopted at a special town meeting this past Aug. 7. Three weeks later at another special town meeting, it survived on a 79-44 vote an attempt led by Selectman Steve Bennett to place a 180-day renewable moratorium on its use. Bennett owns property abutting the site.
Board member Bill Pickford offered his doubts after Monday’s meeting the members will be able to get all the way through their deliberations on the wind power application next week but, he noted, they have a regular meeting scheduled for Dec. 6 at 6:30 p.m. at the town offices at which time the task could be completed. As it happens, Dec. 6 is also the deadline for the board to determine whether the application meets the requirements of the development review ordinance and then take a vote.
Led by Bennett, who was accompanied at the hearing by attorney Ed Bearor, opponents of the project mounted a succession of objections ranging from questions about the impartiality of one of the board members to whether an expert study commissioned by
CES into sound levels produced by the 130-foot rotating turbine blades failed to take certain critical factors into question.
Once board members had conferred with their newly hired attorney, Bill Kelly, assuring themselves they were following proper legal protocol, the gathering of approximately three dozen townspeople heard first from CES representative Andy Price. After noting his local connections, which include being a nephew of Ron Price, the farmer who owns the field at Beaver Ridge where the 260-foot turbine towers would be installed, the CES executive discussed his company’s plans. Price emphasized both the turbines’ potential to generate considerable local property tax revenue and preserve farmland as well as their broader social implication in responding to the problems of global warming and petroleum dependence.
Price then discussed a “white paper” study commissioned in June for CES by Dr. Anthony L. Rogers, director of research and technology at the Renewable Energy Research Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. Rogers, whose investigations at the laboratory over the past decade have been largely concerned with wind turbine dynamics and wind resource measurement, developed a theoretical model of the Beaver Ridge site that concluded that the CES project would meet the maximum decibel restrictions contained in Freedom’s development review ordinance, both as measured at nearby residences and at the abutting property lines.
Price underscored the “very conservative” approach Rogers took in making the study. While admitting there are uncertainties in such projections, Price said the study made a point of eliminating from consideration a number of existing factors at the site that would reduce the level of sound, including grass, trees, turbine hub height and certain temperature, humidity and other weather conditions.
In concluding his remarks, Price, who called himself “a determined environmentalist,” declared, “It’s natural to be afraid of the unknown,” then commented that some of the objections he’s heard seem raised only to delay the project and, “in some cases, are spurious attempts [to make us] look elsewhere.”
A lengthy portion of the hearing after Price’s introduction was devoted to a challenge by Erin Bennett-Wade, an abutter to Beaver Ridge, who read a letter claiming a number of dated instances in which board member Kim Holmes allegedly made comments indicating she has a bias in favor of the wind project. She asked that Holmes be removed.
“The test is to use your common sense,” Kelly advised the board. He said members must be “neutral fact-finders” and gave the example of “someone who says, “˜I’m not going to vote for this no matter what’–that would not be OK.” On the other hand, he added, “It’s not unusual in small towns for people to make comments. The test is are they able to make a fair and unbiased decision?”
Holmes admitted “I am for wind power whether in Freedom or anywhere else,” but assured her fellow board members she was fully capable of rendering a fair decision.
Ron Price reacted heatedly to Bennett-Wade’s charges, calling for due process and arguing to the board that “what was given to you in that letter is hearsay.”
But, equally heated about a specific pro-project comment Holmes allegedly made, Judy Wade snapped, “I overheard it and it was said for the whole board to hear.”
Board member Prentiss Grassi acknowledged he had “the sense that Kim as an individual is inclined toward the project” but he also thought she was capable of acting on board decisions impartially. In the ensuing vote on Pickford’s motion not to ask Holmes to stand down from the board, Grassi was joined in supporting her by the other board members present, Drew Fales and Nancy Bailey-Farrar, the chairman.
Bearor put Andy Price through lengthy questioning in which he sought to raise doubts about the Rogers study. He pointed out the Bay State academic was associated with a private consulting firm in producing the paid study for CES and he asserted Rogers was working “purely from conjecture” when he suggested the ambient sound levels he did, thus perhaps arriving at decibel level projections when the turbines are operating that wouldn’t be accurate.
When Price disagreed with Bearor’s contention the uncertainties are sufficient to put the study’s findings in doubt, the attorney answered, “You can disagree but you have the burden.”
But in the mind of some of the board members it wasn’t Bearor’s questioning so much as technical information read aloud by Diane Winn that raised their level of doubt. Winn suggested despite Rogers’ conservative approach he didn’t take certain critical factors into account in his model including prevailing wind direction and speed. She urged the board to investigate further.
Price responded that given the “very technical” level of the information he preferred that Rogers address it. Abutter Phil Bloomstein urged the board “to take this seriously what Diane has cited.”
Kelly observed, “It’s very difficult to comment on expert testimony the night of the meeting.”
Grassi said, “The question is how far we look into the sound questions.”
With the hour approaching 10, Bailey-Farrar commented that the board commissioned a sound study and it got one and “personally, I don’t feel the need for additional material.” Despite some hesitation because, he said, he respected Winn’s opinion, Grassi nonetheless supplied the second when Pickford moved to close the hearing and cease accepting information. The vote was 5-0.
By Peter Taber
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