With a single dissenting vote cast in a series of motions over three hours, the wind power project on Beaver Ridge moved to within a hair’s breadth of approval Wednesday, Nov. 29.
The issue of noise created one of the only disagreements during the meeting. When Planning Board member Bill Pickford offered a motion to find the project would comply with noise standards in Freedom’s commercial development review ordinance, member Prentice Grassi could not go along.
“I won’t be comfortable voting on it [Pickford’s motion] without more information on ambient noise levels [on Beaver Ridge],” said Grassi.
Competitive Energy Systems of Portland, developer of the proposed $12 million project, hired professor Anthony L. Rogers of the Renewable Energy Lab at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to study whether the turbines could meet the sound thresholds set in the ordinance. Using what he said were “conservative assumptions,” Rogers found the project could meet the requirements.
A key assumption made by Rogers was that natural sound levels on the hilltop were below 35 decibels. The professor did not measure noise on the site, however.
During a Nov. 20 public hearing on the project, Diane Winn of Avian Haven questioned whether ambient sound levels were in fact below 35 decibels, and also whether Rogers took the impact of wind direction into account in his study.
On Wednesday, board member Lillian Phillips dismissed Winn’s comments. “I feel she has a lack of credibility,” said Phillips.
Pickford said the board had no evidence the project would not meet the sound requirements, only Rogers’ report saying that it would.
“I think our only judgment is: Based on the evidence we have on hand, do we think they can meet it?” said Pickford.
That wasn’t good enough for Grassi. “The [Rogers’] study was comprehensive and complete, but we don’t know what the ambient sound levels are on Beaver Ridge,” he said, “”¦ and I’m still not sure if he used prevailing wind data.”
Richard Silkman, a senior partner in CES, assured the board that Rogers was given a full year of data on wind speed and direction on the hill.
On the issue of ambient sound levels, Andy Price of CES said that natural sound levels were not likely to push the project above the noise threshold.
“He assumed the ambient sound levels were quiet,” said Price. “”¦ Obviously, if Phil Bloomstein [the closest neighbor to the project site] were to play his radio at 45 decibels, you wouldn’t be able to do anything, anywhere in town.”
For Grassi, however, the lack of certainty was fatal. When the motion came to a vote, he was the lone dissenter. Nevertheless, it passed 5-1.
The vote suggested CES was likely to win final approval for the project at the Planning Board’s next hearing. If that happens, said Selectman Steve Bennett, the decision would be appealed. Members of Bennett’s family own several lots near the proposed site of the turbines, on land owned by Knox farmer Ron Price.
An appeal would go first to the Freedom Board of Appeals, and then potentially to court.
In numerous other votes Wednesday – dealing with such issues as erosion control, lighting, natural resource protection and waste management – the board found 6-0 that the windmill proposal was in compliance with the requirements of the ordinance.
Near the end of the meeting, however, the issue of requiring a performance bond or other form of financial security became a sticky matter. The ordinance said the developer must provide evidence of financial capacity to remove the windmill project at the end of its useful life – at a total cost that CES currently estimates would be about $150,000.
Jay Guber, code enforcement officer for Freedom, asked what guarantees the company would provide that it could undertake the dismantling, if necessary. “Let’s say CES declares bankruptcy and goes under “¦ where’s the money coming from to “¦ remove the project?” asked Guber.
Silkman told the board if CES had $12 million to build the three turbines, it certainly had $150,000 to take them down. He said that should be sufficient evidence of financial capacity. Ultimately, the board agreed, in a 6-0 vote.
The issue of a performance bond came up again at the end of the meeting. The board was considering whether CES complied with a section of the ordinance that states, “the Planning Board shall require the furnishing of a bond or other performance guarantee it deems of equal security to secure the applicant’s obligations under this ordinance.”
The wording gave pause to William Kelly, the Belfast attorney who is advising the board.
“It seems to me [that] to satisfy the board’s obligations, this needs consideration,” said Kelly, suggesting that either a bond or letter of credit from a bank would demonstrate that CES has the financial capacity to build the project.
Silkman, however, said his company was under no obligation to actually construct the turbines. “We don’t have to build the project,” he said. “We are just asking for permission to do it.”
After the meeting, Silkman said CES does not have financing in place to build the project. While the company has fielded several inquiries from potential backers, Silkman said the project is unlikely to get funding until the Freedom Planning Board gives its approval.
In its own review of the ordinance requirements, Silkman told Planning Board members, CES assumed the only place a bond might be required would be to guarantee its completion of any road work that might be required.
Kelly, however, said he needed more time to think about how to address the issue. He recommended the board take up the matter again in a few days.
The Planning Board voted to continue the hearing at 6:30 p.m. Thursday, Dec. 7, at the Freedom Town Office.
Based in Belfast, Copy Editor Andy Kekacs can be reached at 207-338-0484 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
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