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Public hearing set on wind turbine zoning laws

After heated debate, the Town Council approved a measure to allow a public hearing hearing on the Planning Board’s proposed wind turbine zoning law amendments, which are opposed by the Wind Turbine Committee.

Two town committees at odds with how local wind turbine zoning laws should be written will get to argue their cases before the Town Council and public later this month.

Following a discussion that at times drew heated comments from members of the Town Council, Planning Board and Wind Turbine Committee, the majority of the Town Council Tuesday night ultimately voted to allow a public hearing to go forward to consider the Planning Board’s proposed changes to zoning laws governing construction of new wind turbines.

At issue are proposed language amendments put forward by the Planning Board 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 council voted 6-1 to allow the item to move along to public hearing. Council member Barbara A. VonVillas, dissented, after criticizing the amendment language for being “faulty” and possibly opening up the town to “liability.” VonVillas was also concerned about language that gave planning and zoning officials discretionary powers to deny an application if a “significant number” of people objected to the dominant view of a wind turbine.

“What is a significant number? Significant is one of those words that’s particular to the eyes of the beholder,” said VonVillas, who also represents the Town Council on the Wind Turbine Committee. She also questioned the use of “dominant view” as criteria when referring to wind turbines in general. “Any time you have a wind turbine it’s going to dominate the view,” she said.

VonVillas echoed the concerns of the Wind Turbine Committee that spoke in opposition to the amendment Tuesday night, asserting that the language of “historic, natural or scenic” was “too vague” and could be applied to most any place in Middletown, depending on points of view. The committee has met for about three years, charged to help the town come up with a plan to construct its own municipal commercial-grade turbine to provide a clean energy alternative and help the town offset foreseen rising energy costs.

“These amendments would effectively preclude any future commercial wind turbines in Middletown,” argued committee Chair Christine Weglowski Forster. “If Middletown wants to restrict turbines from particular areas…I suggest that we identify specific areas of town instead.”

“The practical effect of these amendments, intended or not, would eliminate the possibility of having any future wind turbines in Middletown,” added Peter Taargard, committee member. “There are few, if any, areas in Middletown not classified as scenic, historic or natural…If they aren’t, they’re likely a residential area where something like this would not be suitable.”

“Why do we want to renew this struggle? Enough is enough!” Tarpgaard concluded.

Resident John Bagwill spoke in support of the amendments, arguing that the new wind turbine ordinance passed in February 2010 was incomplete and that the amendments would remedy that void so zoning laws comply with the town’s Comprehensive Master Plan.

Like VonVillas, council member Robert J. Sylvia found fault with the proposed amendments and, at first, showed reluctance to move them forward to a public hearing.

“I think amendments like this will get us into more trouble,” Sylvia said, and questioned whether the Town Council could override the Planning Board’s proposed amendments by refusing to move them to a public hearing at all.

Such a comment drew the ire of Planning Board Chairman Arthur S. Weber, Jr., who criticized the council for “playing politics” with the issue. “This amendment takes ‘not complete’ out of the picture,” Weber said, referring to current zoning laws regarding wind turbines. He further asserted that planners and zoning officials were appointed and qualified to make case-by-case determinations regarding “dominant views” to “significant numbers of people,” as well issues pertaining to “historic, natural or scenic.”

Councilor Sylvia ultimately voted with the majority to allow the Planning Board’s recommendations to move forward, after Town Solicitor Michael W. Miller strongly advocated for planners’ recommendations to receive their due process before the public. Miller also noted that the Planning Board’s amendments were created as “simple housekeeping,” to ensure that the new zoning ordinance matches language already in the town’s Comprehensive Plan that the Town Council adopted in 2008.

Council member Frank A. Bozyan, who also represents the council on the Wind Turbine Committee, reminded members that technically the Comprehensive Plan seeks to “promote” wind turbines in Middletown, reading aloud from the Comprehensive Plan itself.

“I think we have two opposing committees that stand in opposition to the each other on this issue, and there’s been this back-and-forth for some time now,” said Sylvia. “Let’s be done with it. Let’s get the public’s input. Let’s bring this to a head.”

The Town Council next meets Sept. 21, 2010.