GLOUCESTER – A third wind turbine has received City Council’s seal of approval.
Compared to the matched set of giants that will rise nearly 500 feet from a central high point in Blackburn Industrial Park and help Varian Semiconductor Equipment Associates cut into its annual $2 million energy bill, the single tower authorized by the council last week is small.
But the top of the blade, as designed, would be 180 feet above the granite ledge on which developer Mac Bell intends to construct an office building containing numerous “green” innovations other than the turbine.
City Council’s vote last week was 9-0. But it was a unanimity anchored to expressed worries about the onset of global warming and runaway carbon fuel prices – and it didn’t quite capture the feelings of a conflicted community and conflicted votes.
Much of the lukewarm endorsement stemmed from the nature of the project, which is quite different from Varian’s.
If it is built, Bell’s smaller turbine will be much more obvious than Varian’s to those coming into the city, since it would stand on the east bank of the Annisquam River, just south of the railroad bridge, in view of virtually everyone arriving by Route 128.
The location bothered Lee Anne Kowalski of nearby Bellvue Street, and, after her multimedia PowerPoint presentation, a number of councilors as well.
Kowalski put into the debate documentary footage of recent turbine failures, a fire on one, a brake failure on another, that effectively illustrated what happens when demand for a new technology overwhelms supply, yielding shoddy work.
“The technology is evolving rapidly,” she said, speaking for about 60 residents of the area around the Emerson Avenue site where Bell intends to build for a commercial tenant or buyer.
Greg Zosky of Conant Avenue argued the site provides a “view of the Annisquam we all cherish.”
“You will see it (the turbine) in a marquee view into Gloucester,” added Seth Woods.
Councilor Sharon George’s nuanced support was typical of that of the entire body.
She expressed worry about homes and businesses near the turbine site, acknowledged the inevitable degraded views, and noise from the “whirring” and noted that “we don’t see any benefit” from the turbine which, Bell conceded, was important to giving the site a competitive advantage against commercial office space elsewhere, especially in Beverly.
“Only Mr. Bell benefits,” George said.
She noted, however, that Bell had met the requirements of the city’s ordinance.
By ordinance, the turbine can only be build with, not in advance of, his speculative development.
Councilor Phil Devlin initially opposed the turbine out of concern for its visual impact. He noted, “You will see this everywhere,” but said he came to understand that the turbine ordinance did not allow rejection on aesthetic grounds.
Councilor Jason Grow also seemed conflicted, saying “we shouldn’t be doing something just because it seems green.” Later, however, he said an important factor in his yes vote was the absence of any expressed concern about the turbine from Pathways from Children, whose facility is but a few hundred feet to the south of Bell’s property.
“We need to move forward into the 21st century on energy,” Grow said.
The conflict stood in sharp contrast to last year’s reaction to the Varian proposal. As the city’s biggest and only publicly traded company, the world market leader in the making of machines essential to the manufacturing of computer chips, inspired a genuinely enthusiastic response to a request for permission to raise the largest turbines Massachusetts has seen.
The case was made that Varian needed to control runaway energy costs, and while the turbines will be 30 stories high, they will be erected near the center of the cape.
Another difference between Bell’s turbine proposal and Varian’s involves the issue of certainty.
A delay in the vetting of Varian’s proposal for the adoption of the city’s first turbine ordinance cost the company about one year in the ordering and delivery of the machinery and led to much frustration by the firm whose manufacturing processes use enormous amounts of power.
Varian made clear it would have its turbines up as soon as possible.
The council wrote into Bell’s permit a two-year limit for finding a tenant or buyer for the office building he hopes to build on the bank of the Annisquam.
By Richard Gaines
1 June 2008