In the Aroostook County town of Mars Hill, 28 wind turbines will soon be generating electricity. Even before they begin commercial operation, however, the windmills are generating considerable controversy.
The biggest issue is noise.
“It’s a wump, wump, wump, wump “¦ or a small plane sort of hovering over the house,” said Carol Cowperthwaite, who lives on the east side of the mountain near the Canadian border.
Under certain weather conditions, Cowperthwaite said, she can hear noise from the turbines inside her home, at about the level of a low conversation. The house is located about 2,500 feet from – and considerably below – the project’s turbines high on Mars Hill.
A survey of other property owners around the mountain shows some surprising results. Several people who live on the north side of the mountain, in some cases no more than 1,300 feet or so from the closest turbine, said they cannot hear the machine inside their homes.
Others who live much farther away from the wind generators, but on the east side of the mountain, said they can clearly hear the noise when they are indoors.
The variations in the apparent noise level – and how annoying it seems – suggest it might not be easy to predict what will happen if three, similarly sized wind turbines are erected on Beaver Ridge in Freedom.
Mars Hill in 2005, before the erection of 28 wind turbines. (Image courtesy of Bernie Stickney)
Richard Fletcher has lived in Mars Hill since he was 12 years old. He is 77 now, so he’s seen a lot of winters on the mountain that is the town’s namesake. “It’s kind of disgusting when strangers can come in here and alter a whole way of life,” he said.
Mars Hill runs north and south, parallel to the nearby Canadian border. The line of turbines starts at low elevation on the north side and continues over the top of the mountain. Fletcher’s house is about 1,500 feet from the nearest turbine, and he can see about a dozen of the units when he looks out his windows.
Fletcher doesn’t like the view. “Most people who aren’t against them live quite a ways away from them,” he observed.
Depending on weather conditions such as barometric pressure and wind direction, Fletcher said, the noise at his house ranges from something like Niagara Falls to a gentle whoosh, whoosh. He has never heard the sound inside his home, but he said the strobe effect caused by the rising sun shining through the turbines’ blades in the early morning can be dazzling.
A view of Mars Hill in late January 2006. (Image courtesy of Bernie Stickney)
Fletcher’s neighbor, Bernie Stickney, is about 1,300 feet from the closest turbine. Stickney also has never heard the windmill inside his house, and he said the noise outside is not as loud as a passing tractor-trailer. “I think the weather is going to have a lot to play with it,” said Stickney.
For both Fletcher and Stickney, changes in their view of Mars Hill were the most difficult thing to accept. For people on the east side of the mountain, however, the issue is more than aesthetics.
Cowperthwaite said about a dozen homes are on that side of the hill. Generally, they are farther away from the turbines than houses on the north side, but the machines are far higher in elevation. Also, the winds often blow toward the east-side homes, she said.
The combination, she said, aggravates the noise problem.
“One of our neighbors is in a dip, and the noise is always 4 or 5 decibels louder there,” she said. “They have to use a fan [to mask the sound] at night.”
Cowperthwaite said the project was not yet in full operation. Last week, she said, 19 turbines were working at one point, but they are generally tested in smaller groups. No matter what the completed project sounds like, Cowperthwaite said she and her husband have decided they are too old to leave. “We’ve decided that our next move is the cemetery,” she said.
The town of Mars Hill was a co-applicant with the developer, Evergreen Wind Power LLC of Bangor, in seeking approval for the project. At the local level, there was no ordinance to compel a thorough review of the wind farm. That left the Maine Department of Environmental Protection with primary oversight, under the state’s site location law.
The DEP’s noise standards are looser than those in Freedom’s Commercial Development Review ordinance. The Waldo County town mandates that projects generate no more than 55 decibels at the boundary lines of the property on which the development is located, and no more than 45 decibels at any nearby residence.
The state allows 75 decibels at the property lines of the project, a daytime range of 55-70 decibels, and a nighttime range of 45-60 decibels, depending on the area in which the project is located.
Andy Price of CES said a noise study commissioned for the Mars Hill project indicated it was likely to exceed those thresholds. “Apparently, their sound study indicated that [the project] would exceed 45 decibels at something like 44 houses, and 55 decibels at 18 houses,” said Price. “It shouldn’t be a great surprise that it did.”
By contrast, a noise study done for Beaver Ridge said the project “will not exceed 45 decibels at any residence at any hour during the year,” Price said.
Cowperthwaite said 45 decibels is about the level of an average conversation. That might not seem too loud, she said, “but if you go to bed at night and there is a normal conversation going on in the room, you’d find it hard to go to sleep.”
The primary DEP staff person who reviewed the Mars Hill project was not available last week, and other department officials did not return calls from VillageSoup. A DEP official told the Bangor Daily News that the regional office had received several complaints about noise and had begun an investigation.
The support that town officials showed to the developers of the Mars Hill wind farm rankles some who live around the mountain. Cowperthwaite said the tax benefits were minimal, and could be substantially offset by a loss of state funding for education.
Several residents said they felt betrayed by the town, and they questioned why a developer was allowed to bring such change to Mars Hill. “We had a perfect view of the mountain,” said Stickney. “”¦ They’ve ruined the view and spoiled the way of life around here.”
Cowperthwaite said residents ought to be worried about what will happen in Freedom if the Beaver Ridge project is built. “If you have anybody living around that mountain, I would fight it with everything I had.”
Based in Belfast, Copy Editor Andy Kekacs can be reached at 207-338-0484 or by e-mail at email@example.com.
7 February 2007