September 11, 2010

Rewriting town’s turbine bylaw will be long, involved task

By Brent Runyon, The Falmouth Enterprise, 7 September 2010

Town planners met Tuesday last week to discuss the town’s outdated wind turbine bylaw, but agreed that they have both too much and not enough information to begin writing a new one.

Falmouth Planning Board, Zoning Board of Appeals, and town staff discussed wind turbine related issues for over an hour, but came no closer to a solution for how to permit future wind turbines in town.

Planning Board Chairman Patricia H. Kerfoot and Board of Appeals Chairman Matthew J. McNamara volunteered earlier this summer to research wind turbine issues, but said they did not quite realize the size of the task.

“To be quite honest, we agreed to take on this project and were overwhelmed,” Mr. McNamara said.

Ms. Kerfoot told the boards that there is no evidence of health related concerns from wind turbines, but also added that there is no real scientific research on the topic.

“The health issues are all anecdotal,” Ms. Kerfoot said. “However, that doesn’t mean it’s not real.”

To write a new bylaw, town officials would need to make judgments about health issues as well as how much sound a wind turbine could produce. Ms. Kerfoot said sound over 35 decibels is considered detrimental by industrial sound experts.

Mr. McNamara said that they also looked at bylaws of other towns relating to wind turbines. By applying the setbacks that other towns have adopted, Mr. McNamara said, there would be no place to put a wind turbine in Falmouth.

With one large scale turbine in operation at the wastewater treatment plant, and another on under construction, the town of Falmouth has been recognized as a state leader in renewable technology. At the same time, neighbors have registered repeated complaints about the noise generated by the turbine.

In response, the town commissioned a sound study of the area which is not yet complete. Town planners said that data will be key in writing a new bylaw.

Board members will wait for the sound study to be complete before meeting again on the topic, most likely in November.

There are five privately owned turbines throughout the town, more than any other town or city in the state, but the Falmouth bylaw governing those turbines is, by all accounts, outdated and inadequate.

“Our bylaw is so woefully outdate, it refers to them as windmills, not wind turbines,” said Ms. Kerfoot.

The chairmen asked their boards if they should consider a moratorium on wind turbines for perhaps a year, until they had more information, but no board members spoke in favor of that idea.

“While our bylaw needs to change, we also need more facts,” said Planning Board member Kenneth W. Medeiros II. “I’m not in favor of a moratorium. We’re still in fact-finding mode.”

Board of Appeals member Ronald H. Erickson asked board members to take a vote to see what board members thought of wind turbines. “I’d be interested to see who would raise their hands and vote that they were for or against wind turbines,” Mr. Erickson said.

Ms. Kerfoot said that it would be inappropriate to take such a vote, and Mr. McNamara said that his board is responsible for permitting turbines, and he would be uncomfortable having a recorded vote of who is in favor or against them.

Mr. Erickson said he thought it would be interesting to see how people’s opinions changed over time.

“Wind turbines are a fact of life. There are wind turbines already in Falmouth. Whether we like them or we don’t, they’re here,” Mr. McNamara said.

The boards heard an update from the town staff on wind turbines.

“We are a progressive community and we did take some risks in developing these wind turbines,” Assistant Town Manager Heather B. Harper told the board members. She described the two town-owned turbines as a large scale public works project at a public facility.

“We want it to be seen as successful,” she said.

The sound studies should be completed this month, and then, she said, she would meet with neighbors and hold a public forum about the results.

The town has done its best to be open about the process, she said, even publishing the raw data from the sound study on its website and putting out a newsletter outlining the issues created by the turbine.

Of the six active turbines in Falmouth, only three went through the permitting process. The town-owned turbine, the Woods Hole Research turbine, and the Falmouth Academy turbine did not require special permits from the appeals board.

The Woods Hole Research and Falmouth Academy turbines bypassed the permitting process because they have an educational exemption through the state law.

Town Planner Brian A. Currie explained how the educational institutions can bypass the zoning bylaw. The chapter in Massachusetts General Law commonly referred to as the Dover Amendment, can be used to bypass local zoning.

Part of the Woods Hole Research Center’s mission is to educate people about the potential of wind energy, he said.

On the other hand, he said, the Marine Biological Laboratory might not qualify for an educational exemption to build a wind turbine because it does not study wind power.

One board member posed a hypothetical scenario.

Planning Board member Richard K. Latimer asked if he founded the Church of Aeolus, and he and the other members of the church worshipped wind power, would each of them be allowed to build a wind turbine in their backyards to worship the wind.

Mr. Currie said that if that hypothetical scenario were to happen, the members of the Church of Aeolus would be taken to court to prevent them from building turbines.

Another board member asked if the permitting should be taken out of Falmouth board’s hands.

Planning Board member Ralph E. Herbst wondered if the two boards might consider having Falmouth named a district of critical planning concern in regard to wind turbines, so that the Cape Cod Commission could weigh in on any new project.

Mr. Currie said this was the first he had heard of that idea, but it was a possibility.

Mr. McNamara said he would prefer to keep the permitting process within Falmouth, and no involve any outside agencies.

Mr. Herbst asked Ms. Harper if there would be any sound study information from the Massachusetts Military Reservation, where there is also a large scale wind turbine. Ms. Harper said she did not think they had the same issues with resident’ noise complaints.

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