Questions of whether noise measurements have anything to do with real life, and if people can warm to the appearance of towering wind towers animated two days of testimony here before the Public Service Board (PSB).
Aesthetic arguments against wind farms have made little headway before the board in the previous two cases presently on record – Searsburg and East Haven Wind Farm. Yet past results have not diminished the polarizing role they are playing in a bid by a Massachusetts’s company, UPC, to put up a wind farm on the ridge lines in Sheffield.
The plan calls for 16 towers that will each reach a height of 420 feet when the tips of the blades are in a vertical position. But just how the height of those towers was measured aesthetically was one of the highlights in a give-and-take discussion Monday between a Sutton resident and the company’s landscape expert.
Don Gregory, a homeowner whose property abuts the Sheffield wind project, wanted to know why in simulations provided by the company, visibility was assessed from the tower’s hub, at roughly 260 feet, rather than the tip of the blade.
David Raphael, a landscape architect from Panton, Vermont, who was on the stand all day Monday testifying for UPC, replied that hub represented a fixed height that was always in the same place. The blades, which run 153 feet long with a width that tapers from six feet at the base to two feet at the tip, he added, did not rise to the level of visibility.
His reply spiked the curiosity of board member David Coen. “You don’t think it’s significant as a visual impact?” he asked.
Mr. Raphael downplayed the impact by noting the blades are always in motion when the turbine in working, and on days when the wind isn’t blowing and turbine is still, there is no certainty that a blade will come to rest at 12 o’clock, or the apex.
“Isn’t it true that the eye is drawn toward a moving object?” Mr. Gregory persisted, adding that the blades would stick out more than a fixed object.
“Has that potential,” acknowledged Mr. Raphael.
The exchange quickly expanded into a discussion of how wind farms are sited.
Throughout his testimony, Mr. Raphael repeatedly tried to show that when it comes to measuring aesthetic impact, the function of a wind tower must be weighed along with its form.
Like a ski resort, he said, the function of a wind tower requires it to be placed on a ridge line or mountaintop.
Does that mean, inquired Sutton attorney Daniel Hershenson, that a Wal-Mart should be allowed to go in wherever there is a busy traffic corner?
“I wouldn’t work for Wal-Mart,” said Mr. Raphael, who repeatedly argued that the way the public feels about something influences the aesthetic impact it has on them. And in a society concerned over global warming, he suggested that wind towers would gain wider acceptance as part of the landscape.
Land use regulators have found that proposed projects have an undue adverse impact, aesthetically speaking, if they appear shocking and offensive to the average citizen. According to Mr. Raphael, however, community standards change as they evolve over time. Time and the importance people attach to a cell tower or a wind turbine, he added, gives a community an opportunity to get their arms around it, and not be shocked.
But if familiarity in this situation breeds acceptance, then what’s to keep wind farms from proliferating and dominating an area, asked board member John Burke.
In recently reviewing public comments that have been offered over the months on the Sheffield project, he said, he was struck by the slippery slope concerns of a woman, who noted that clear cutting had made it possible for the big DC power line, and that its presence was clearing the way for wind towers.
“You must never give up or you’ll lose your way,” he quoted her as saying.
“Progress is a slippery slope,” replied Mr. Raphael. “We are a culture that seems to want more,” he added, and this desire will have an impact on the landscape.
The architect went on to testify that a poll recently taken showed there is “widespread support” among Vermonters for wind power. And that when folks catch up to the benefits a wind farm brings to society, their sensibilities will lead them to embrace it.
But testimony Monday suggested that day hasn’t arrived.
“When will it offend the common sensibility?” asked Mr. Hershenson, who noted earlier that public opposition in the Northeast Kingdom had caused planners to back away from promoting wind power in an updated regional plan that was recently approved.
“If built,” replied Mr. Raphael.
Later, under questions from the Board, Mr. Raphael said it is important to site wind farms in a working forest where scenic values are not high, and where the impact will only be felt by a few.
“Not everyone supports or appreciates this kind of power,” he said
Asked to identify other locations in the state where a wind farm would be suitable, he cited Little Equinox, outside of Manchester. Such a site, he added, could be more risky because the impact would affect a larger number of people.
“There is no easy place to site these things,” he said at one point.
Under the amended plan filed in January that shifted the project to entirely within the town lines of Sheffield, 13 of the 16 turbines will be visible from the Crystal Lake State Park in Barton, according to testimony Monday.
Due to its late filing in the case, the town of Barton has not been able to put on evidence as to how the proposed towers will affect the state park at Crystal Lake.
In both written and oral testimony, Mr. Raphael has argued that the towers will not have an undue adverse impact because people don’t go to Crystal for the scenery. And that the lake’s scenic values pale when compared to similar locations, like Willoughby Lake.
He told the board that when he had occasion to stay at a client’s place on Willoughby, he “never even went to or heard of Crystal Lake.” The lake, he added, does not have the celebrated status that Willoughby has achieved with its 1,000-foot cliffs and flanking steep mountains.
The comparison prompted Mr. Burke to wonder if there should be a Cadillac scenic protection plan as well as a Yugo one.
But Mr. Raphael argued that a visible wind farm from the beach at Crystal would not “unduly alter the sense of place or undermine the reasons that draw people to it.”
Earlier in the day, the Department of Public Service’s attorney, John Cotter, noted that when it comes to aesthetics, wind farms are batting 1,000 before the Public Service Board. Until now the issue of noise, which some believe should be included in an aesthetic assessment, has been relegated to studies from competing experts, who often challenge one another’s methodology.
But last week, as complaints about turbine noise begins to surface from places like Mars Hill, Maine, where a UPC wind farm recently went on line, a debate has started to shape up over how much weight the board should give tests that measure noise.
On the stand testifying as a panel for UPC were sound experts Chris Menge and Chris Bejedke. They testified that tests they conducted in the area indicated that turbine noises would not have an adverse effect on the community.
“Our purpose is to project potential noise into the community,” noted Mr. Menge.
Under the revised layout that cut the original project from 26 turbines to 16, Mr. Bejedke testified that although the new Clipper turbines are bigger, they will produce less noise on the order of one to two decibels. Testimony from the panel also indicated that noise levels would come well under existing Environmental Protection Agency standards. And at high wind speed, according to their testimony, the noise of wind through the trees would tend to mask the noise from the turbines.
Yet, under cross examination from Sutton’s attorney, Mr. Hershenson, the panel acknowledged that noise complaints have surfaced in other host communities despite test results. Displaying an article written by Mr. Bejedke that appeared in a trade magazine, North American Wind Power, Mr. Hershenson cited passages showing that complaints over noise began airing as soon as the turbines came on line.
In Lincoln, Wisconsin, for example, the attorney noted that complaints surfaced even when the noise levels were in compliance with the permit. As a result, he added, a moratorium had been imposed throughout the county on wind farms.
Vermont has no standards for noise studies, but according to testimony, a Massachusetts public agency uses as a cap ten decibels over the measured background noise. No permit is awarded if the noise exceeds the cap.
Mr. Hershenson argued there are numerous locations in the Sheffield project where turbine noise would exceed the ten-decibel cap. That was an assertion that Mr. Bejedke rejected.
Argument Monday suggested there may be a bias at work when background samples are collected in rural areas that are quiet.
Most of the complaints at the Lincoln wind farm came during the night. According to expert testimony on the Sheffield project, none of the studies was conducted at night. Mr. Bejedke testified that most of the samplings were collected between 8:45 a.m. and 2 p.m.
However, Mr. Mange contended that if there were a bias, it would work against wind farms. Quiet background noises at night in the country, he said, “would require the wind turbines to be practically silent.”
Concerns over turbine noise has been one of the mainstay issues raised by the King George School and its owner, Universal Health Services. Attorneys and the company’s experts dueled Friday over whether the bigger Clipper turbines would increase the noise to unacceptable levels within hearing of the school, which was founded to help students with behavioral problems.
“King George School is noise sensitive,” noted Mr. Bejedke at one point.
The school, along with opponents of the project, may have caught a break this week when the board ruled it would allow Principal Karen Fitzhugh to testify. Throughout the public debate, she has warned that noise from the turbines could cause the school to close.
In announcing the decision, board chairman James Volz said: “The issue is really important, and it is really important to the economy of the area.”
Ms. Fitzhugh’s testimony is expected to be heard next month, when the board plans to hold a second round of hearings. Scheduled to start on March 21 and last for two or three days, the hearings are also expected to take testimony from the town of Barton on how the project’s construction phase will affect roadways and services.
Although interest in wind is statewide, the project holds a special fascination for the Northeast Kingdom. If successful, Sheffield will be the site of the area’s first wind farm. And given the region’s remote and rural character – and the interest its ridge lines has aroused in wind developers – the decision could have far-reaching ramifications for an area that is land rich and cash poor and incurably edgy that the siting of one wind farm will open the door for others.
by Paul Lefebvre
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