“Dominates the view” is one phrase likely to be repeated, debated and scrutinized over the next few months, as a proposal for a 294-foot tall wind turbine on a hilltop sheep farm overlooking Sachuest Point makes its way through the Planning and Zoning departmental approvals processes.
Among the first steps in the process was Tuesday night’s public hearing before the Planning Board. Although the public discussion portion of the hearing was continued to Sept. 8, so that planners may first conduct a site visit to the property, about 30 town residents turned out with hopes of being heard, mostly in opposition to the project.
Luise Strauss, owner of the 485 Paradise Avenue property where the turbine would be built, has indicated through her construction proposal that the wind turbine’s primary use would be to supply power for her sheep farm. However, that power also may be sold to the farm’s neighbor, St. George’s boarding school, as well as National Grid, the state’s main power and utility provider.
Plans call for the town to grant a special use permit to build a wind turbine no larger than 1 megawatt in size, due to Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) restrictions, and up to 294 feet in height, including the span of either a two- or three-blade turbine.
Richard A. Sherman, attorney to Strauss, on Tuesday night outlined the proposal to the Planning Board in greater detail.
The structure would sit on a 14-acre area located on the northwest corner of Strauss’ sheep farm, which is 119 feet above sea level overlooking Sachuest Point. Besides the wind turbine itself, construction would include a graded but unpaved access road, a small 4-foot-by-4-foot-by-3-foot utility building to house the turbine’s power transformer, a security fence around both, and electrical connections below ground.
The turbine would be coated with a non-reflective white paint and have a flashing light on top in accordance with FAA regulations.
“It’s important to note that as an alternative energy source, its usage would be intermittent,” said Sherman, explaining that the turbine would be able to operate about 40% due to wind conditions. The blades itself would rotate at speeds ranging between 8-10 mph and 40-45 mph, with an automatic shut-off set to activate once speeds exceed that level, he said.
Asked about plans to sell excess power to the neighboring St. George’s boarding school and/or National Grid, Sherman said so far neither has been negotiated. “If the special use permit is granted, then we’ll pursue those possibilities, but she’s the owner, she’s the applicant,” Sherman re-iterated. “This is Mrs. Strauss’ project and nobody else’s.”
The proposal came before the Planning Board on the same night as a unanimous 7-0 vote to support changes to align the existing Zoning Ordinance with current language in the town’s comprehensive plan regarding wind turbines. Essentially, several areas of the Zoning Ordinance would be changed to minimize or restrict the visual impact of wind turbines around town should the Zoning Board approve the changes.
To start with, one change would redefine a “public vantage point” as “a location from which a significant number of the public views a scenic, natural, or historic landmark in the town of Middletown.”
Another Zoning Ordinance proposed change reads, “Wind turbines shall not be located in areas that will result in the wind turbine dominating the view of a scenic, natural or historic resource of the town from one or more prominent public vantage points.”
A third amendment emphasizes the Comprehensive Plan requirements that wind turbines not “dominate the visual qualities of the land from prominent public vantage points” and charges the Zoning Board with making a specific finding about whether a wind turbine would dominate any such scenic area, and support findings with “evidence.”
Since Strauss’ application for a Special Use Permit was submitted before the zoning amendment, a revised zoning law would not apply to Strauss’ project but would apply to other future wind turbine projects. However, the original wind turbine zoning law passed earlier this year, before Strauss submitted her application and proposal, so the original law would apply, noted town officials.
Whether or not the proposed turbine would “dominate” the vista remains open to debate and will likely take central focus once the public weighs in, especially since the Comprehensive Plan had included such language for some time prior to the Strauss application.
One test of visual “dominance” to a landscape has been the use of computer-generated photos that predict how the landscape would look if the project is approved.
Included among Strauss’ proposal were illustrations taken from vistas on area beaches and other locations up to two miles away, as a way of showing the project’s foreseen visual impact to the surrounding area. The proposed windmill would be visible from Middletown’s Sachuest beaches, as well as Newport’s Easton’s Beach, according to computer-generated design photos included with the proposal.
Given the subjective nature of debates related to how “dominant” any given view may be, passionate discussions are to be expected to unfold in comming months during future public hearings.
The two dozen or so residents who attended Tuesday night’s hearing weren’t able to speak out in favor or opposition to the proposal just yet because public discussion was continued to early September, but the hallway and parking lots outside Council Chambers became impromptu meeting places to connect and build solidarity.
John Bagwill lives on Tuckerman Avenue less than a mile away. He would not see the turbine from his home and he’s previously supported the two smaller 55-foot wind turbines on farms off Mitchell’s Lane and a third turbine located at the Aquidneck Corporate Park. But he opposes this latest proposal because, he said, it fails in two areas. “As far as I can tell, it conforms to the town ordinance but not the comprehensive plan,” he said, referring to the component that forbids wind turbines from being sighted in locations with public vantage points.
Secondly, Bagwill takes issue with the proposed size and scope of the project, noting that other Middletown farms had erected smaller turbines that “blended into the landscape” and produce adequate power to sustain the farms and sell back some power to the utility company.
“The town needs to examine the commercial aspects of this project,” said Bagwell. “Something of this size—this is a commercial installation in a residential zone.”
Others who came out to oppose the proposal included Anthony Spiratos, resident owner of a 9-unit apartment complex about a half-mile from the proposed wind turbine site. He echoed sentiments about the structure’s impact to area views and added that he’s concerned about its affect on neighbors’ health, especially epileptics or the elderly, from flickering light and low frequency vibrations.
Planning Board member Richard Adams, also a Town Council candidate, said that while he generally supports wind power as an alternative energy source, his mind’s not made up yet. It won’t be, he said, until after the board’s site visit, further review of the proposal, and hearing the public’s input. Ultimately, planners must follow the local zoning ordinance as law, he added.
“What we’re going to do is follow the zoning ordinance,” said Adams. “There’s goodness to the plan in terms of alternative energy, but what it boils down to is whether it dominates the view.”
The Planning Board’s scheduled site visit to walk the Strauss property takes place at 9 am on Friday, Aug. 27, and the board’s continued public hearing for residents’ input and board members’ discussion will be held September 8. Both the site visit and regular meeting are considered public meetings but generally no discussion or deliberation will take place during the site visit, noted town officials.
The continuance also means that the upcoming Zoning Board of Review will likely continue its own hearing on the wind turbine’s application for a special use permit, which currently is scheduled for Tuesday, Aug. 24, 2010. Before the Zoning Board can take action, it first receives an advisory recommendation from the Planning Board.
Given the unfolding timetable, town officials said the official vote of the Zoning Board on the wind turbine project could happen as early as October.
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