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Wind turbine proponents to fight zoning law changes

The wind turbine debate heat ups this week as town officials consider changing zoning laws to limit construction of new structures.

Tuesday at 7 pm, the Town Council gets its first look at proposed zoning ordinance changes put forth by the Planning Commission last month that call for restricting new wind turbine construction to areas where the turbines would not provide a dominant view from sites around town that are historic, natural or scenic. The Town Council would have the option to deny the proposed changes or further consider the amendments with future public hearings and public debate scheduled.

Wednesday night at 6:30 pm, the Planning Board is expected to continue to a later date further discussion on a proposal that calls for a 294-foot structure to be located atop a 14-acre parcel on the northwest corner of Luise Strauss’ sheep farm at 485 Paradise Avenue, a gently sloping hillside about 119 feet above sea level. Ronald Wolanski, Director of Planning & Economic Development, said Tuesday that the Planning Board will continue the item to a special meeting to likely be scheduled in early October, once a consultant has been hired to further advise the town.

“We expect to have a consultant on board later this month,” said Wolanski. He later added, “I’m expecting another continuance with little if any discussion tomorrow night.”

The proposed amendments to existing zoning laws regarding wind turbines to be discussed Tuesday night at the Town Council meeting will not affect the Strauss project because that application will be weighed based on laws existing at the time of submission.

However, opponents’ strong feelings toward the Strauss project seem to have heavily influenced the recent urgency and push to change the town’s fairly new wind turbine zoning ordinance, and that has some proponents of wind energy and moving Middletown to providing more “green energy” concerned.

For nearly three years, the Wind Turbine Feasibility Committee has met by order of the town, as part of its Comprehensive Master Plan, to investigate the construction of a town-owned commercial grade wind turbine as a way to increase local clean energy alternatives. According to member Peter Tarpgaard, the committee has not yet pinned down a site for a town-owned turbine, but so far has determined that a 1.5-megawatt structure similar in size and scope to one located next to Portsmouth High School would save the town about $10 million over the structure’s projected 20-year life cycle, helping to offset foreseen rising energy costs in coming decades.

Tarpgaard said he plans to address the council tonight, along with other leaders and members of the Wind Turbine Feasibility Committee, to discourage the Town Council from adopting the Planning Board’s proposed wind turbine ordinance amendments.

“These proposed changes are sort of schizophrenic because the town’s Comprehensive Master Plan says ‘we support clean wind energy’ but if these changes become the prevailing law, then (wind turbines) can’t be erected anywhere where we can see them,” explained Tarpgaard. “That’s the logical disconnect and we think that writing those provisions into our ordinance is not in accordance with the Comprehensive Plan, and we think the practical effect would be that the town would not be able to build any wind turbine.”

Tarpgaard and others are particularly concerned about proposed language that would restrict turbines from being built in areas where they are visible from scenic, historic or natural settings.

“There would be few if any places in Middletown that would not be seen as scenic, historic or natural from a viewpoint,” said Tarpgaard. “These broad terms could apply anywhere in Middletown and effectually it could become law that no wind turbines can be erected in Middletown.”

Tarpgaard has heard opponents’ arguments that wind turbines create visual blight and offered that if more people understood the engineering requirements of wind energy, they might feel differently. In order for wind turbines to be effective and produce clean energy, their heights must be high enough to harness the wind power that sweeps over the island, and that usually means they will be found on hillsides or highly visible, he noted.

“Some talk about the issue of it having a ‘dominant view’ and causing visual blight, but not everyone sees it that way,” said Tarpgaard. “Others see it as an elegant symbol of environmental responsibility.”

Three other privately-owned wind turbines are currently operational in Middletown: Two 55-foot structures on private farms on Mitchell’s Lane and another at the Aquidneck Corporate Park off Valley Road.