MARS HILL, Maine – This year, when Steven and Tammie Fletcher took their traditional New Year’s Eve walk to the top of Mars Hill, the crisp winter stillness mixed with something unfamiliar: the whoosh of the new windmills towering over the northern Maine mountaintop.
This is not how it was supposed to be, say the Fletchers and their neighbors on the north side of Mars Hill, where a 28-turbine wind farm, the largest yet built in New England, began operating in December.
Residents say that town officials and company representatives repeatedly assured them that the wind farm would be silent. Instead, they say, the windmills have disrupted their mountainside idyll. On days with low cloud cover, when the pulsing, rushing noise is loudest, wind farm neighbors say it can disrupt their sleep and drown out the rushing brook that was once the only sound here.
“It changes your whole feeling about being in the woods,” said Tammie Fletcher, whose mountainside house boasts floor-to-ceiling views of the ridge where the windmills now stand.
Opponents of wind power projects have typically focused on the way the windmills alter familiar scenic views. But the Mars Hill wind farm has sent ripples of concern about their noise around New England, where numerous wind farms are proposed.
In Vermont, where the same company is proposing a 16-turbine wind farm in Sheffield, residents hammered the developer with questions about noise at a hearing last week.
There is little consensus about the scale of the problem. Noise levels can vary according to topography, turbine design, background noise, and weather conditions, and some people are more sensitive to the sound than others. But a growing number of potential wind farm neighbors are demanding answers.
“Developers are still saying that the projects will be noiseless, but they’re being questioned a lot more,” said Eric Rosenbloom, president of National Wind Watch, a Massachusetts-based watchdog group that helps potential wind farm neighbors fight the projects.
Manufacturers of industrial wind turbines have worked to reduce noise emissions, with significant success in the last 20 years, say industry leaders and scientists. Most large turbines now being installed are quieter than the small windmills used to power individual households, and usually generate complaints only from close neighbors.
But some neighbors say the noise, while variable and subtle, is still profoundly disruptive.
In Mars Hill, 18 families who live near the wind farm are asking the state Department of Environmental Protection to force the project’s owner, UPC Wind Management, to restore their peace and quiet. Regional director Nick Archer said the department has received 10 noise complaints and will work with the company to study the noise and determine if it exceeds permitted levels.
A preliminary study of the Mars Hill wind farm suggested that it had potential to exceed the noise limits in a handful of locations. But state environmental officials decided that the excess noise would have no “unreasonable adverse effect,” and said the project could go ahead.
Michael Alvarez, chief operating officer of UPC Wind, promised that more comprehensive testing would be done.
“We are concerned if there are neighbors of ours who are concerned about noise levels, and we want to address it,” Alvarez said.
Planning for the Mars Hill wind farm began five years ago, and provoked few objections from the town’s 1,480 residents, town manager Raymond Mersereau said, even though the 262-foot windmills would line the top of the town’s most cherished landmark, its 1,700-foot mountain.
Located in rural Aroostook County, on the Canadian border, Mars Hill was once a bustling center of potato farming. But the town lost jobs and population as small, family farms gave way to mechanization. The wind farm brought only a handful of permanent new jobs, but promised $500,000 in annual tax income. Local leaders pledged to use the money to cut property taxes and increase funding for schools.
“We don’t want our town to dry up and blow away,” Mersereau said. “This was an opportunity to get a clean new industry.”
He said he never expected to hear complaints about noise. But while it is louder than he expected, he said the noise is less than a major disruption.
“You almost have to be listening for it,” he said.
Angry neighbors of the wind farm say town leaders kept the $85 million project quiet until it was well under away, to ensure the local reaction would be muted.
But Mersereau says neighbors of the project were sent letters notifying them about it in 2003. He says some neighbors attended meetings held during the planning process.
Several neighbors built new houses next to the mountain while the project was under review; they say they did not know how much it would affect them.
“People bought property here specifically for the silence,” said Wendy Todd, whose new house, next to her parents’ farmhouse, sits about 2,000 feet from the wind farm.
“It’s that wonder-if-your-ears-are-working silence, when you can hear snow falling on your hair. It’s the silence I grew up with. And now we’re expected to live with a noise like cars going by.”
Specialists say the tension between wind farms and neighbors is heightened by the need to place turbines in the windiest locations. Many of those spots are rural, with little background noise, so the impact of any new sound is greater.
“We pretty much have to go where the wind speeds are, and, in some parts of the East, those are going to be mountain tops and mountain passes, isolated locations,” said Tom Gray, deputy executive director of the American Wind Energy Association.
Turbines in more populated areas can also stir complaint. The new, town-operated Hull Wind turbine has won accolades from clean energy advocates. But Khela Thorne of Hingham decried what she described as the constant, dull background noise. “The idea is that you should pipe down and do what’s best for everyone,” she said, “but it’s hard when it bothers you day in and day out.”
Proponents of wind farms say that concerns about scenery and silence should be weighed against the benefits, such as decreased air pollution.
“People say, ‘Why should I accept this? I’m not getting anything?’ ” Gray said.
“Well, you are. There are benefits everyone gets from accepting projects like this.”
By Jenna Russell
Jenna Russell can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
17 February 2007