Now that the major potential stumbling block of just how much noise would be produced by three giant wind turbine installations topping out at nearly 400 feet over Beaver Ridge in Freedom lies behind them, members of the town planning board return to their deliberations this Thursday on the application by Competitive Energy Services (CES) to build the $12 million wind power project. That session, which could conclude the board’s role in the project, is scheduled for 6:30 p.m. at the town offices.
At its initial session last Wednesday following a lengthy and sometimes passionate public hearing Nov. 20, the board determined on a 5-1 vote that the whirring130-foot turbine blades would not violate noise level standards established in the town’s new Commercial Development Review Ordinance. Left unresolved, however, as the board continues to proceed at a cautious pace is whether the Portland-based affiliate company should be required to submit a performance bond or similar financial guarantee it will not leave any liabilities behind should the project go belly up.
Although the board as a whole has been careful as it approaches a project that has gathered unfriendly as well as supportive attention from different groups of townspeople, member Prentice Grassi has been particularly scrupulous and conservative in his considerations.
While the other five board members present last week ultimately affirmed conclusions of an expert study paid for by CES that sound levels produced by the turbine blades wouldn’t exceed the new ordinance standards, Grassi spoke of his discomfort over the issue of to what degree ambient noise at the wind-swept rural site might skew final results.
Grassi also had reservations about what protections are in place for the town to ensure the 262-foot towers with their turbines are taken down and properly removed from the site should CES go bankrupt. Although he went on to vote with the others that this condition was met with respect to the ordinance standards, essentially the same issue surfaced at the end of the nearly three-hour meeting when the board came to consider the necessity of requiring a performance bond or similar security from the company.
Member Bill Pickford already had his motion seconded that this requirement should be waived as moot when attorney Bill Kelly, specially hired by the board to advise the members as they consider CES’s application, suggested the matter deserved further consideration. “I can see all kinds of potential for appeals,” he said. At that point, the members agreed to close the session and continue discussion of the matter Dec. 7.
The Beaver Ridge project has received strong endorsement in Freedom in a locally initiated petition of support submitted in May signed by about half the town’s adult population and in overwhelming adoption at an Aug. 7 special town meeting of the Commercial Development Reserve Ordinance. An action called by two of the selectmen to hold another town meeting three weeks later to consider imposing a 180-day renewable moratorium on implementation of that ordinance resulted in a 79-44 defeat for the question.
Development of the new ordinance was triggered in part by CES’s March 1 application. The old eight-page building ordinance was adopted 16 years ago and had no specific provisions for a wind energy development. Although the company was under no obligation to delay its plans, it agreed to wait until after a replacement ordinance with a section on wind power development was adopted. Andy Price, project manager for CES who grew up in neighboring Montville and whose uncle Ron Price owns the approximately 75-acre parcel of land at Beaver Ridge where the project would be sited, has publicly stated the company has no wish to locate in a community that doesn’t want it.
But despite the support in Freedom, the project has hardly been without local critics as well. Steve Bennett, one of the selectmen who called for the ordinance moratorium, lives near the site and owns a 25-acre horseshoe-shaped parcel abutting on three sides with Price’s property. He has hired an attorney and he and some of his relatives and other abutters to the site have publicly questioned whether the project is fair to them.
Tuesday, Bennett confirmed if the planning board approves the project, at the very least he will go to the town board of appeals to seek redress. “There are any number of areas that we could appeal this on,” he said. “I don’t feel as if we have had a fair hearing before the planning board.”
Leaving aside the twin questions whether a wind power project at this particular site even makes technical and economic sense over the long term, Bennett argues the new ordinance under which the board is considering the project “was written per the specifications of the company that is the developer. That’s just not fair. The setbacks are a prime example of this and that’s just the beginning. The board thinks the concerns of the abutters are less important than what the town as a whole thinks. And it’s not just the Bennett family that’s concerned here. There are about a dozen abutters. I don’t know of a single one of them that’s in favor of this project.”
The matter of whether the project would meet the noise standards in the ordinance came down to the question voiced by Pickford, “Did we receive evidence to the contrary?” With the exception of Grassi, the board members agreed the answer to that was no, despite suggestions to the contrary in a letter read at the Nov. 20 public hearing by resident Diane Winn. They found the study prepared in June for CES by Dr. Anthony L. Rogers was sufficient assurance the turbine blades would not cause noise levels in violation of the ordinance standards, both as measured at the nearest residence and at the abutting property lines. Rogers is director of research and technology at the Renewable Energy Research Laboratory at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.
Although Andy Price emphasized at the hearing the conservative assumptions used by Rogers in reaching his conclusions, Winn pointed out his study was basically a theoretical model that didn’t include actual baseline ambient noise readings. She claimed certain potentially critical factors like wind speed and direction were also not taken into account.
Board member Lillian Phillips dismissed as “not credible” what Winn had to say. She also accused the Freedom resident of being “not forthcoming” in making the information available at the last moment. Pickford agreed. “I saw no evidence [CES] could not meet the criteria,” he said.
“There was no ambient noise study,” Grassi said.
“I’m not sure that’s our job,” Pickford replied. Grassi agreed the Rogers study “seems very comprehensive but it’s based upon an assumption.” He explained that assumption was that true ambient noise at the site, perhaps now or perhaps 15 years from now when further development takes place in the area, wouldn’t combine with the turbine noise to send it beyond the limits set down in the ordinance.
Nancy Bailey-Farrar, the board chairman, noted it was Winn who recommended Rogers for the study and said she couldn’t believe he would have said the project would meet the town’s noise specifications “if he didn’t believe it.”
Discussion continued back and forth with Grassi at an impasse with the others, finally saying just before the vote that he wanted “to be comfortable” with the evidence before approving that particular standard.
On the issue of decommissioning the project, CES managing partner Richard Silkman, who accompanied Andy Price to the meeting, verged on exasperation that considering the initial cost of the three turbine installations there should be any question his company can’t come up with the estimated $150,000 to remove them. “What if there’s no money there? Bankruptcy?” Grassi asked. Those questions went unanswered after Kelly explained CES only has to “identify” the financial resources available to carry this out. “It’s the company. That’s the resource,” Silkman said. The board was satisfied and voted 6-0 to approve the standard.
But after wading through a host of detail for other standards and giving their unanimous approval–lighting, air quality, erosion control and electromagnetic interference among them–the board came back to the issue of CES’s viability as its last item of business for the session. Pickford asserted the standard requiring a performance bond was not applicable because the project would impose no obligations on the town. He made a motion to this effect.
Kelly cautioned that although Pickford might be right, that unlike for instance a subdivision project with associated public roads, the wind power installation might not require public infrastructure, he nonetheless thought it might be prudent to ask for some assurance of financial capability for the record. Instead of a bond, he suggested a letter of credit might be in order, “something that shows they have the resources and that those resources are available.”
Silkman, who earlier had revealed no financing for the project has so far taken place, sharply disagreed with the attorney’s suggestion. “We have no obligation to build the project,” he pointed out.
“The only obligation I can see is decommissioning,” Pickford admitted. Kelly referred to the possibilities of appeal of the board’s final decision and said he needed to think about the performance bond standard further. At that point, Pickford suggested the board adjourn and take up the matter at its next session. The vote was 6-0.
By Peter Taber
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding