The recent repeal of Freedom’s nascent Commercial Site Review ordinance, and the very long, convoluted and complex series of events that led to this vote needs further reflection and dialogue.
I am writing this not as a member of the Appeals Board of the town of Freedom, whose decision prompted the repeal effort, but as a long-time (18 years, admittedly not as long as some) resident of this town, former Planning Board member (five years) and chairperson (two years), and experienced environmental policy analyst, biologist and planner (28 years).
The Freedom Planning Board is first to be commended for responding swiftly to the gap in town regulatory authority identified when Competitive Energy Services applied to the town to construct three wind turbines on Beaver Ridge in Freedom.
The town does not have a Comprehensive Plan to guide any development or land-use activity, only a smattering of specific ordinances addressing different issues. Thus, all that was required by CES was a simple building permit.
CES understood at the time of this initial application, that to ensure broad support of the project, the town and CES would be best served if the town could develop an ordinance under which the project could be reviewed more thoroughly that would address town, abutter, land-use and other impacts of this or any other proposed commercial development in Freedom.
The ordinance that was developed over many months of tiresome, contentious and difficult meetings resulted in the passage of a less-than-perfect ordinance, whose flaws I will not go into here.
Nonetheless, everyone agreed it was sufficient to protect the town and clear enough to guide the developers. Many people also assumed the ordinance would result in an approval of the wind project by the Planning Board, which it did, despite many concerns raised by abutters.
Once the permit was granted, a long list of abutters, other neighbors and concerned citizens appealed the decision. The appeal was upheld by the Appeals Board primarily over the issues of noise (the Appeals Board determined CES did not sufficiently demonstrate that it could and would stay within the sound limits in the ordinance), and the waiver of a requirement that the developers post a bond to pay for decommissioning of the project.
Another significant issue raised in the appeal was road ownership and the ability of CES to install transmission lines. There was insufficient evidence to rule on this and so there were no grounds to challenge the Planning Board vote on this issue.
While much of the debate was centered on sound studies conducted by a consultant hired by CES, and whether the assumed noise levels to be heard at property lines or at residences included “ambient” or background noise, the repeated requests by the Appeals Board for further documentation from CES that it would be able to meet the standards (55 db at the property line and 45 db at a residence) given these concerns was met with no additional information.
CES indicated the guidelines were “performance standards which we will meet” and “we stand by our sound studies.” Thus, without further documentation by the company, the Appeals Board ruled there was insufficient evidence that the sound criterion in the ordinance would be met, and thus by approving this condition for the permit, the Planning Board had erred.
This long explanation is necessary to make a very specific point.
Before the referendum vote on the appeal, CES wrote to every townsperson that if the ordinance was repealed, it would go forward and apply for a building permit (since without the ordinance, all that would be required is a building permit) and that it would do three things to ensure the noise limits would be met.
First, CES would slow blade rotation, if necessary, to reduce sound output, if necessary; second, it would appoint a community liaison to hear complaints and communicate them to CES; and third, would establish a 24-hour phone number for calling in complaints.
While this gave the appearance of “good will” toward the concerns raised by abutters and neighbors, I cannot accept the terms of this “good will” when CES refused to offer these same assurances during the course of the appeals board process.
Instead, these assurances were used to bolster the case to repeal the ordinance. Why did not CES offer these assurances in the context of the appeal process? Its unwillingness to provide these assurances during the appeals board review led the town toward a contentious and fractious vote that framed the recent debate as a vote for or against the turbines, using the ordinance as proxy for that vote, rather than working within a process that could allow for fair treatment of all parties – the company, the landowner, the abutters and all townspeople with an interest in the project.
I also reject the notion that this debate is about efforts to reduce global warming, and the opposition to the project is a return of NIMBYism (Not in My Backyard).
The debate, in my mind, was and still is about process, and whether a small town is able and prepared to understand the need to treat all landowners fairly, and the importance of planning tools like ordinances to facilitate a fair process.
By supporting the repeal as a way to circumvent accountability, CES may get the high ground on Beaver Ridge for its turbines, but in no way did CES take the high ground in serving all residents of Freedom with respect and fairness as it struggled to meet the needs of this project and to plan for appropriate development in the future.
By Lissa Widoff
3 July 2007
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