As wind power development looms over the Island, planning agencies and other organizations are beginning to come to terms with what that will mean visually. The Martha’s Vineyard Commission and Vineyard Power have each developed visual simulations to show what Vineyard horizons will look like dotted with wind farms.
And depending on your persuasion, the altered seascapes represent either a pristine panorama blighted by industrial machinery or a stirring reminder of the Island’s potential energy independence.
The Martha’s Vineyard Commission’s is charged with determining the appropriate scale of any turbine project within three miles of Vineyard shores, including as the area south of Noman’s Land identified for development in the state’s Ocean Management Plan. Simulations developed by the MVC in concert with the Cape Cod Commission were created to help members get a sense of that scale. But even with simulations in hand determining visual impact is no easy endeavor.
“You do the visual simulations and then you go, is that okay, is that not okay? Who decides whether that’s okay or not?” said commission executive director Mark London at a presentation on Wednesday at the Howes House in West Tisbury.
As it begins to work on developing rules for offshore wind farms around the Vineyard, the commission is confronting among other things the unenviable task of quantifying the scenic value of various Vineyard vistas. And it has tackled what would seem a hopelessly subjective enterprise by scoring Island viewsheds on a variety of features, including the pristine nature of the views, the average length of visitors’ sojourns at the locations, the primary use of the locations and the number of visitors that those locations attract.
Unsurprisingly, one spot stands alone in the most critical category: the Gay Head lookout. As a result, wind development south of Cuttyhunk as proposed under the state’s Ocean Plan sits directly in the line of a viewshed that the commission has labeled “very exceptionally significant.”
“The Cuttyhunk siting is extremely problematic from a scenic resources point of view,” said Mr. London. He said the commission spent hours observing viewing behavior at the lookout to determine which parts of the stunning panorama would be most affected.
Potential development off Noman’s Land was found less troublesome by the commission, although the area was still ranked highly as a peripheral viewshed.
Three Island locations earned the designation as viewsheds of exceptional significance – Philbin Beach, Lobsterville Beach and Ocean Park – while others were ranked lower as either regionally or locally significant.
Chris Fried, a member of the Tisbury energy committee, proposed his own novel idea for considering visual impacts.
“I don’t think we’d be doing a thorough study unless we also generate photos of what would happen if we did not put wind turbines along the horizon,” he said. “We should have photographs that show eroded cliffs due to sea level rise, photographs showing increased smog along the horizon, photographs of oil-covered sea birds and other animals due to the likelihood of more oil spills. I think this is just one very small part of what we should be looking at in terms of what’s acceptable and what’s not.”
“Disagree,” replied Andrew Goldman, who heads a citizen group that is critical of the commonwealth’s wind policies as they relate to the Vineyard.
Mr. London reminded commission members that aesthetic consideration would not be the sole determinant for turbine siting.
“We may find out that the locations that are best for viewsheds are the worst for the birds,” he said.
Tyler Studds, a member of the Island energy cooperative Vineyard Power, which has prepared its own simulations of offshore development that were presented on Tuesday night to a summer taxpayer meeting in Aquinnah, said only visual appraisal of turbines presents an incomplete picture.
“I think that it’s really important to note that wind turbines are a lot more than just objects in the landscape. They will play a significant role in our energy future,” he said.
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