November 30, 2007

Aquinnah energy district sparks Martha's Vineyard Commission public hearing review

The Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) will hold a public hearing at 7:30 pm, on Dec. 7, to consider a nomination by the Aquinnah selectman to make the town an energy district of critical planning concern (DCPC).

The commissioners unanimously agreed to accept the nomination for consideration at a meeting on Nov. 1, which gave them until Dec. 20 to hold a public hearing and vote on whether to designate the energy district.

Although ordinarily DPCP nominations trigger an automatic building moratorium, the MVC agreed to a request from the Aquinnah selectmen to place a limited moratorium on the district pertaining only to structures exceeding 32 feet in height.

DCPC coordinator Jo-Ann Taylor said that if the MVC concludes the public hearing on Dec. 6 and agrees to designate the town as an energy DCPC, the same limited moratorium will remain in effect for up to a year after the designation decision, until regulations for the district are approved. However, the Aquinnah selectmen say they are committed to finishing the process in six months, according to selectman chairman Camille Rose.

At next week’s hearing, the MVC staff will provide guidelines with which the town must conform in creating regulations for the energy district. When finished, the town will bring the regulations back to the MVC for another public hearing and approval by the commissioners as to whether the regulations conform to their guidelines. If approved by the MVC, the regulations then require approval by two-thirds of Aquinnah voters at a town meeting.

Although the entire town of Aquinnah already is designated a DCPC, as the selectmen explained in their application to the MVC, the purpose of the energy DCPC is “to protect further the town’s landscape, while managing energy resources effectively.”

In addition to encouraging efficient building construction with regulations designed to optimize alternative energy uses in new construction, an energy DCPC could address optimum placement of wind turbines, solar panels, and geothermal systems, the application also stated.

Reaching new heights

As Ms. Rose explained at the MVC’s November meeting, the town does not have any specific regulations to help manage wind turbine towers. Since Aquinnah already has a limit on building height and it is unlikely anything outside of a wind turbine tower would exceed 32 feet, the selectmen intended that the air rights moratorium would not stop all building projects.

In a phone call this week, Ms. Rose said that Aquinnah’s interest in creating an energy district dovetails with the town’s interest in creating a municipally owned wind energy system. A wind turbine capable of producing 3 mega-watts of power, mounted on a 350-foot tower, could provide power for the entire town. Since wind turbine towers have scenic and environmental impact, Ms. Rose said the selectmen wanted to ensure that regulations would address their height and siting.

The town’s new interest in a wind energy project does not, however, conflict with one already underway by the Wampanoag Tribe of Gay Head (Aquinnah), Ms. Rose said. In the spring of 2006, the Tribe applied for and received permits to build a 150-foot meteorological tower to collect wind data on an old LORAN (Long Range Aid to Navigation) site. Ms. Rose said the proposed energy DCPC exempts tribal and settlement lands, in keeping with terms of an agreement signed in 1983.

Although both the Tribe and the town of Aquinnah applied to the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative (MTC) for grants, senior project manager Chris Clark said the two projects are not a duplication of funding and effort.

The Tribe applied to the MTC for a grant through a pre-development finance program, which targets public entities that might not be eligible for the MTC’s community wind initiative program, Mr. Clark explained. The MTC provided a $50,000 grant to the Tribe in 2006 to help with wind monitoring for a feasibility assessment.

Aquinnah applied to the MTC’s community wind initiative program, which specifically targets municipalities interested in developing wind-energy projects on town-owned land, Mr. Clark said. If Aquinnah’s application is approved, MTC will write an award letter to the town and assign a consultant.

The first step will be a site survey to determine if a wind energy system is technically viable, and if it is, a full technical and economic feasibility assessment with on-site wind monitoring would follow, Mr. Clark said. A tower would be erected during the feasibility assessment. Typically wind data is collected for one year.

Although the MTC application required Aquinnah to name three potential wind turbine tower sites, Ms. Rose said two have since been rejected as inappropriate. A third site on the Aquinnah cliffs has become the primary focus, she said.

Although many people objected to the visual impact of the Tribe’s oyster aquafarm on Menemsha Pond, Ms. Rose said she thinks wind turbine towers will be less obtrusive. “They are something people have to get used to – they may have to accept that they are the ultimate answer,” she added. She hopes to have some illustrations depicting what one might look like at the cliffs site.

The pros and cons

Aquinnah’s move to create a town-wide energy DCPC stemmed from efforts last spring by selectman Jim Newman to create an Island-wide DCPC. Voters in Aquinnah, Chilmark, West Tisbury, and Oak Bluffs approved the idea, while Edgartown and Tisbury voters rejected it.

In a phone call this week, Mr. Newman said he sees the main purpose for creating an energy DCPC is to give the planning board and selectmen the ability to implement change in terms of energy conservation so that new construction becomes more “green.”

Although Aquinnah already has a town-wide DCPC with regulations on the height and size of houses, Mr. Newman said, “This goes beyond that, in that it could possibly require that certain materials are used or not used, or that solar panels are used, or some other energy-mitigating device. I’m prefacing that with ‘could,’ because it is not mandating any change.”

When asked if any Island tradesmen had voiced concern about possible increased construction costs related to the energy DCPC, Mr. Newman said, “I haven’t, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. I would not in the least be surprised if there would be opposition to it, and yet it’s happening in many parts of the country, where new building codes are being adopted that conform to saving energy and decreasing the carbon footprint that’s out there.”

John Walsh, a builder and long-time member of Aquinnah’s Finance and Advisory committee, questioned the need for the proposed energy DCPC at Aquinnah’s town meeting. “I spoke against it not because of being a builder as much as simply someone who is concerned about the heavy amount of regulations that already exist here,” he said. “I think a very important fact is that our houses are summer houses – we don’t have a lot of energy use. And to go to the point of making people put elaborate systems in houses they’re not going to use doesn’t make sense to me.”

Mr. Walsh said he supports the town’s effort to pursue wind power. “I’m totally behind anything that will make any contribution to really solving the problem of our dependence on foreign oil, but an energy DCPC is such a token and so contrary to our actual need, I don’t think we’re the actual place for that,” he said.

“In the case of an energy DCPC, as soon as you establish a whole bunch of rules, you end up codifying what people do and it turns out to be a limit on technology rather than encouraging it,” Mr. Walsh pointed out. “It’s particularly true in this case because the technology is so new – the best available technology today may not be the best in five months. It would be better to allow the homeowner the freedom to make the most up-to-date choices.”

Ms. Rose said that the intent of the regulations will be to offer guidelines to people building new homes. “We’re not going to require people to raise the price of construction so much that they can’t afford it,” she said.

Aquinnah’s focus on wind turbines evolved because a significant number of residents expressed interest to the selectmen about building towers at their homes, Ms. Rose said. Carlos Montoya, an Aquinnah landscaper who specializes in native plants and landscapes, has been a driving force as the head of the town’s wind energy committee in researching wind turbines. Brian Nelson, who specializes in installing geothermal and alternative energy systems, helped provide information for Aquinnah’s MTC application and recently volunteered to join the wind committee.

Ms. Rose said anyone with concerns about the energy DCPC is welcome to attend next week’s MVC public hearing. In addition, she said the town plans to hold several public hearings as the energy DCPC regulations are being crafted. “I think that anyone from anywhere on the Island who wants to participate and give us ideas would be very welcome,” she said. “We welcome any input we can get, whether positive or negative.

By Janet Hefler

The Martha’s Vineyard Times

29 November 2007

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