With more than a third of the major wind-energy projects in Massachusetts stalled by lawsuits or permit appeals, the Patrick administration has proposed a landmark bill that would streamline the state’s appeals process and make it possible to win approval of such projects much more quickly.
Massachusetts now generates less than 1 percent of the nation’s wind energy, about 9 megawatts, enough to power only about 2,700 homes. Without a change in the permitting process, administration officials say, the state will not meet Governor Deval Patrick’s goal of producing 2,000 megawatts of wind power, enough for 800,000 homes, by 2020.
“For us to see progress, there needs to be a lot more certainty in the permitting process,’’ said Ian Bowles, secretary of the state’s Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “That’s what we’ve heard clearly from the wind industry in order for them to do other significant wind projects in the state.’’
Opponents of the streamlining legislation say it would provide the state too much power and allow developers to steamroll legitimate opposition. They also say the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board, which would be expanded under the new bill to include representatives from municipalities and environmental groups, is an unfair arbiter, because its mission is to approve energy projects as opposed to protecting the environment.
“There has already been a pattern of abuses under the existing system,’’ said Eleanor Tillinghast, president of Green Berkshires, an environmental advocacy group. “This bill would completely override local people and create a situation that is ripe for even greater abuses than we’re seeing now.’’
The critics point to noise pollution, loss of pristine views, and bird deaths as some of the drawbacks of wind projects.
One of the projects stalled by litigation is at the summit of Brodie Mountain in Hancock, where four massive wind turbines rise 385 feet above the ridge line, motionless monuments to the state’s hopes and fears about wind power.
The $53 million project, which would power about 4,500 homes when all 10 turbines are complete, has been in various stages of development over the past decade but came to a halt last month after a spat with neighbors sparked a court order to suspend construction.
The delay reflects the mire of litigation that has slowed the progress of the state’s major wind projects. There are now eight projects delayed that would increase the state’s wind power by 60 megawatts, more than six times the amount of wind energy now available.
The so-called Wind Energy Siting Reform bill would create new rules governing where wind projects can be built, who can issue permits, and how they can be appealed. It would continue to allow developers who have had their projects rejected by municipalities to appeal to the courts, but it would allow private groups who oppose approved projects to appeal only to a state board. Appeals of the board’s decisions could then be heard only by the Supreme Judicial Court.
Advocates for the bill, which lawmakers expect will be approved early next year, say it would reduce the permitting process for wind projects from the current limbo of protracted litigation to between nine and 19 months, with an additional year allowed for legal appeals.
“The system right now just allows too much opportunity for project opponents to delay or derail a project, and it can be very frustrating,’’ said David Tuohey, a spokesman for Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co., one of 15 nonprofit utility companies that have been collectively building the turbines on Brodie Mountain. “There’s clearly a need for this reform.’’
Among the delayed projects are two turbines in Princeton that have been held up for nearly four years because of appeals on zoning permits. The appeals led the developer to withdraw from the project, requiring the town to assume the full cost.
Another project planned for Bakke Mountain in Florida and Crum Hill in Monroe would erect 20 turbines, but it has been delayed for eight years. A wetland permit the developers received in 2004 has been on appeal by local groups ever since. The dispute will soon be decided by the SJC.
Some of the state’s wind energy will be produced by sea-based wind farms, such as the controversial turbines proposed off Cape Cod, but those projects would be subject to federal law.
James McCaffrey, director of the Massachusetts Sierra Club, said he hopes the state bill is refined to allow more local input, without allowing those with parochial concerns about aesthetics or property value to derail wind projects.
“There has to be a balancing act,’’ he said. “We continue to be concerned that the bill will remove too many protections and too much local oversight, but we understand this has to be in someone’s backyard.’’
Some groups that initially opposed the bill have changed their positions.
Geoffrey Beckwith, executive director of the Massachusetts Municipal Association, said the latest version of the bill has assuaged his concerns about loss of local control.
Lawmakers said the bill remains a work in progress, but that it has the support of both Senator Michael W. Morrissey and Representative Barry Finegold, cochairmen of the Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities, and Energy, which has jurisdiction over it.
“We have a goal of getting 20 percent of our power from renewable energy, and right now we don’t have the proper zoning to get to those levels,’’ said Finegold, an Andover Democrat. “We’re trying to work through the concerns of those against this, but we want a bill that’s effective.’’
Morrissey, a Quincy Democrat, said he expects the committee to approve the bill by end of this week. “Having in place guidelines to encourage wind development is a very important first step in our goal toward energy independence,’’ he said.
The bill, however, will not be retroactive, which means disputes such as those delaying the Brodie Mountain project would have to be resolved by the courts.
That allows Silverleaf Resorts of Dallas, which plans to build a 300-unit condo complex on Brodie Mountain, to continue to argue that the turbines should be moved so they aren’t visible or in earshot of the future condo owners. They also argue that “ice throw’’ – ice that can build up on the turbines when they are inactive and get hurled when they go on – could present a danger to those using the mountain’s ski trails, which they bought three years ago.
For the developers of the wind farm, whose permit process began in 1998, the process couldn’t be any slower. They said the injunction, issued because of questions about whether they had permission to build a road on a certain tract of land, means a loss of millions of dollars.
“This has been a big disappointment,’’ said Tuohey of the Massachusetts Municipal Wholesale Electric Co. “Something has to change.’’
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