Earlier this year, opponents of a wind turbine proposed near the Cape Cod National Seashore convinced Wellfleet officials to nix the plan. In May, Harwich town meeting rejected a plan to build two turbines next door to a neighborhood west of Hinkleys Pond.
Similar showdowns are playing out across Massachusetts, prompting state legislation that would make it easier for wind energy projects of at least 2 megawatts to clear local hurdles.
House lawmakers are expected to vote before the end of the month on the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act. The Senate has already passed its own version of the bill.
Proponents of the measure say it is necessary to combat frivolous “not in my backyard” challenges that bog down necessary projects. Opponents say it is a power grab by Gov. Deval Patrick, who has called for 2,000 megawatts of wind power by 2020.
“Ninety-nine percent of the population of this state is not aware of what is about to happen,” said Preston Ribnick, a South Wellfleet homeowner and an opponent of wind turbines near residential neighborhoods. Ribnick and others have stormed the Statehouse recently to raise concerns about the proposed law.
The law, they argue, would strip towns of local control, circumvent other state regulations and restrict the rights to appeal the state’s decisions on wind energy projects.
The law streamlines the permitting process for wind energy projects of at least 2 megawatts. It would not apply to many of the single turbine land-based projects being built around the state but could affect larger multi-turbine projects such as the one rejected in Harwich.
Opponents have misinterpreted the proposed law, said state Rep. Matthew Patrick, D-Falmouth. While the law would designate high wind-resource areas, it does not allow unfettered development in those locations, he said.
Towns could designate a permitting board to review wind energy projects in lieu of the current practice of multiple municipal boards separately approving a project, he said.
The state would also create a “blue ribbon panel” to address concerns such as noise from turbines and the impacts on wildlife, Patrick said. Setbacks for turbines, he said, could be established by the panel to reduce the types of complaints that have been heard in Falmouth.
A nearly 400-foot-tall turbine at the town’s wastewater treatment facility was originally heralded as a success but neighbors now say noise from the spinning blades robs them of sleep and peace of mind.
The siting bill is a work in progress, and amendments will likely address issues such as the appeal process, Patrick said.
But the law is necessary because of drawn-out opposition to projects, Patrick said.
Even with amendments, the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act is still bad law, said Eleanor Tillinghast, president of Green Berkshires, an organization
that opposes wind-energy projects in the western part of the state.
“The fundamental problems of the bill survive,” she said. For example, all that is required for a developer to seek approval directly from the state is a written finding from the local board, and that finding could be a denial of the project, she said.
But Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs Ian Bowles said the law does nothing to reduce municipal control and has received support from the Massachusetts Municipal Association.
A developer could appeal to Superior Court just like they can now, he said.
And any “interested party” – including opponents – aggrieved by the finding on an application by a new state Division of Green Communities can also appeal to Superior Court, according to language in the bill.
A decision this week by the state Supreme Judicial Court denying an appeal by opponents of a 30-megawatt wind farm in Florida and Monroe shows how long a project can be tied up Bowles said.
“That’s not environmentalism,” Bowles said of the six-year court battle. “That’s anti-wind activism.”
Tillinghast, however, contends that overriding local control would lead to an unwanted expansion of the state’s powers. Other energy generators will likely seek a similar expedited review process if wind energy developers are given these privileges, she said.
“This is the governor using wind to completely change the framework for how permitting takes place in Massachusetts,” she said.