No giant wind turbine blades will spin in the breeze over Freedom’s Beaver Ridge anytime soon. Thursday night, the town board of appeals overturned a Jan. 4 planning board permit issued to Competitive Energy Services (CES) to build the three approximately 260-foot tower-mounted structures. The issues of noise and bonding proved the sticking points for a project calling for an investment of up to $12 million.
“The town of Freedom is giving up the most significant project in its history because the board thought the noise level might be–might be–one decibel higher [than the standards limit] at one particular house–that’s what I heard,” Mark Isaacson, a managing principal in CES who attended the hearing, said quietly after the vote.
Andy Price, another principal in the national firm with offices in Portland, was also reserved yet clearly disappointed. “I think this is an example of fiddling while Rome burns,” he said in a reference to the alarming emergence of the human-caused global warming threat. CES touts its activities in developing renewable energy sources as an alternative to those which burn fossil fuel. Isaacson, who is a founding member of the Independent Energy Producers of Maine, developed one hydroelectric project on the Aroostook River that sells Central Maine Power Co. enough electricity to supply the equivalent of 15,000 homes.
The CES representatives said it was too early to say what they will do now. The company has the option to appeal the board’s decision to Superior Court. Addison Chase, the appeals board chairman, at several points in the more-than-two-hour-long hearing cautioned his three fellow board members present they should strive scrupulously in their deliberations to avoid leaving the kinds of legal loose ends that might be fodder for future court action.
Another possibility available to the company is to make adjustments to come into compliance with the now more stringent standards expected of it as a result of the appeals board decision. Neither CES representative was prepared to say whether this would be feasible for the company until a complete analysis of all the factors can be made. “We no longer have a timeline at this point,” Price said.
Price, whose uncle Ron Price owns the 75-acre parcel of farmland at Beaver Ridge where plans called for the three 1.5 MW turbines to be built, remarked on the irony that his company initially approached the town early last year at a time when it had only the most rudimentary building ordinance. The only factor in that eight-page document that might have applied in controlling the proposed development was a 25-foot minimum property setback standard.
CES has had a stated policy of not embarking on a project in any community unless it is welcome. As a result, the company delayed submitting the project application until the new 48-page commercial development review ordinance, which contained an entire section devoted to wind generation projects, had been adopted.
In a further irony, it was the opponents who viewed with suspicion an ordinance whose further interpretation by the appeals board led to Thursday’s rejection of the project. Steve Bennett, whose property abuts the Beaver Ridge site, led the appeal of the planning board’s permit decision, an effort that has since been joined by 26 abutters and other neighbors who fear their peace and quiet and their property values would be negatively affected. It was Bennett who also led a moratorium effort, defeated on a 79″“44 vote at a special town meeting at the end of August, that would have submitted the new development review ordinance to reconsideration by a special town commission.
Initially, in fact, the proposed CES project received a good deal of public support in Freedom. At a special town meeting last May, a straw vote showed a 2-to-1 margin of support for an endeavor expected to swell the town’s tax base by about a third. Subsequently, Read and Heidi Brugger, who live near the project site, submitted a petition around town affirming support for the project. It was signed by about a third of Freedom’s approximately 650 voters.
“The town has supported this project three times,” Price said. “This is being turned down based on technicalities.”
The issue of potentially disruptive noise has been prominent ever since the project was announced. However, a majority of planning board members–Prentiss Grassi was the lone dissenter here–found their concerns sufficiently allayed by a noise study report submitted by CES that was prepared by University of Massachusetts wind turbine expert Dr. Anthony Rogers.
Local resident Diane Winn, a retired Colby College psychology professor with expertise in the perception of noise, gathered further information that suggested Rogers’ study was flawed because it made extrapolations rather than real-world measurements about the degree of ambient noise present at the proposed wind turbine site. It was this level of sound combined with the actual sound made by the three 130-foot spinning blades driving each turbine that by the new calculations seemed to put the projected noise level above what was allowed under the commercial development review ordinance standards.
At the same time as a majority of the appeals board members recognized the problematic implications of the new sound study, information the planning board chose not to consider, they also acknowledged there was an unfortunate looseness in the ordinance wording. Chase noted that according to the ordinance, in the event of something like a storm when atmospheric noise would drown out the turbine, the combined sound level would far exceed what was technically permitted.
The vote on the noise issue overturning the planning board’s conclusion was 3-0-1 with Frances Walker abstaining.
In the other issue of contention, it was the appeals board members’ own interpretation of bonding requirements under the ordinance rather than any additional information that tipped the balance against the project. In their unanimous decision the appeals board determined the planning board’s decision in favor of the applicant was “clearly contrary” to the ordinance “because bonding is needed to secure all the applicant’s obligations, not only those that impact public infrastructure.”
This decision left Price miffed. Referring to that interpretation of the commercial development review ordinance, he said Freedom was precluding itself from all development. “You couldn’t get a permit to build a gas station in this town,” he declared.
By Peter Taber
9 March 2007
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