BOSTON – The state Senate sought Monday to revive a proposal to overhaul the wind turbine siting process and Senate President Therese Murray indicated she’d throw the weight of her office behind an effort to send the bill to Gov. Deval Patrick.
“We spent a lot of time and effort on this bill, and many communities are waiting on it,” said Murray spokesman David Falcone in a response to a News Service request. “To have it die just because we’re in informal sessions wouldn’t be fair. The bill was passed at midnight at the end of session, and the Senate didn’t get the opportunity to take it up before adjourning. The President is prepared to call informals every day if she has to in order to get it passed.”
The bill, intended to streamline the permitting process for land-based wind energy projects, has been derided by critics as a giveaway to the wind industry that would trample local control. Backers dismiss the criticism and say it will help Massachusetts gain a foothold in a growing clean energy industry. Gov. Deval Patrick, criticized by his campaign rivals for giving up too much to the wind energy industry, has identified the bill as a top priority.
During a session attended only by Sen. James Timilty (D-Walpole) and Sen. Michael Knapik (R-Westfield), Timilty surfaced the wind bill and as the clerk read its title Knapik objected and it was laid aside – during informal sessions scheduled for the rest of 2010 a single member can prevent the advancement of any bill.
After the brief session, Knapik described wind energy as a heavily subsidized “ripoff” and said he was confident Senate Republicans would block the bill any time Senate leaders attempt to push it through between now and the end of the legislative session in January 2011.
Timilty, who presided Monday, said he expected another bid to enact the bill later this week. “Right back up again on Thursday,” he said.
The issue of wind turbine siting has unleashed powerful emotions, and opponents of the bill went to great lengths to prevent it from becoming law – an effort that appeared the pay off when formal sessions ended on July 31 and the wind bill fell one procedural vote shy of clearing the Legislature.
Green Berkshires, the Western Massachusetts group ferociously lobbying against the bill, hired Henri Rauschenbach, a former Republican senator who served in the Senate with Murray and several other incumbents, to lobby against the bill in the final days of the session, according to the group’s head, Eleanor Tillinghast.
Because the bill failed to advance before formal sessions ended – it passed the House at midnight July 31, too late for a vote in the Senate – lawmakers must secure unanimous approval to send the bill to the governor during informal sessions. Lawmakers have used informal sessions to give final passage to major legislation before, but it is unclear whether critics of the bill will muster members to attend every informal session between now and January, particular given Murray’s threat to meet every day.
Under the bill, a Department of Energy Resources would identify municipalities with “significant wind resources.” Those cities and towns would establish “wind energy permitting boards” to approve or reject wind proposals in a single decision, rather than scatter the decision-making among various boards and panels. The bill also includes provisions to expand certain communities’ ability to sell back excess energy to their local grid.
Tillinghast said she was “thrilled” that Knapik blocked passage of the wind bill Monday, saying he “exercised common sense.” She cited wind projects in Brimfield, Hardwick, Ashfield, Granville, Dennis, Wareham and Northborough and called the bill “fundamentally undemocratic.”
For Rep. Matthew Patrick, a supporter of the wind bill, the debate has hit close to home. Patrick’s brother-in-law Neil Andersen, a Falmouth resident, told the News Service Monday that a wind turbine in his neighborhood has destroyed his family’s quality of life to the point that he and his wife may leave the coastal community.
“It’s either the turbine or us,” he said, noting the turbine went up in April. “We leave the house whenever we can. We’ve masked the noise with white noise machines and ear plugs … There’s no such thing as ‘oh it’ll be nice to get back to the house.’”
Andersen said the turbine was built about 1,400 feet from his home and said Rep. Patrick asked him whether he could get used to it. The noise, he said, fluctuates, depending on wind speed and direction. He noted that seven Falmouth families are seeking legal redress. The turbine, he said, “wiped out our lives.”
Rep. Patrick, in a phone interview, said he’s spoken with Andersen and his wife and had just returned from a visit.
“I wanted to hear how loud it was and whether it was disturbing,” he said. “We could hear it a little more in front of his house. It certainly didn’t seem objectionable.”
He added, however, that, “If you think it’s a problem, it’s a problem. It’s impossible to tell people what is and what isn’t going on for them.”
Patrick said his brother-in-law’s concern about the Falmouth turbine should actually lead him to support the streamlined wind energy bill, which he said would set up standards for how far turbines must be located from residences. He said he disagreed with opponents who say the bill will eliminate local control over wind projects.
“There’s no doubt it could be stronger, but it also could be a lot weaker,” he said. “I think the final language got most of the way there.” He said that for the state to override local decisions about wind projects, officials would have to show that the local decision-makers incorrectly applied siting standards.
Patrick said the opposition to the wind bill had “developed a small cottage industry in misinformation”
“It gets used and abused, and in every situation, it’s disappointing to me to see some of my colleagues in the House bow to that kind of pressure,” he said. “They literally lied, the opposition. I was getting emails saying it took more electricity to operate a wind turbine than it ever produced. That kind of stuff, it was so outrageously wrong that they lost all credibility.”
Asked about Rauschenbach’s work against the bill, Patrick said, “It’s a job. He was a supporter of Cape Wind, at least to me he was. He’s told me he admired my position, through the whole thing.”
Sen. Knapik, the Westfield Republican, said lawmakers blew a chance in the final days of formal sessions in late July to enact the bill and said that if they wanted to pass it they could add it to a growing list of other items that could be the focus of a special session, including expanded gambling and the appropriation of new federal funds.
Legislative leaders have signaled little interest in a special session but haven’t ruled one out.
During Monday’s six-minute session, Sen. Timilty referred to Knapik as the senator “from a hundred miles,” referring to the distance between his district and the State House, where he traveled to attend Monday’s brief session.
Knapik said the five Senate Republicans would rotate attendance at twice-weekly informal sessions. Asked if the other four Republicans would object to enacting the wind energy bill, Knapik said, “It would be my assumption.” He added, “We feel it’s not a good deal for the ratepayers, the taxpayers. Time ran out. It’s no fault of ours.”
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