A divided standing-room only crowd of about 100 people filled the Town Council chamber Monday night, spilling into the hall outside for the chance to voice their support or opposition to proposed changes to the town’s new zoning law that governs wind turbine construction.
After a motion put forth by Councilor Barbara A. VonVillas failed in a 3-3 vote to postpone the matter until January, the Town Council proceeded to conduct the first of two readings required in the public hearing process. The council then received public comment from about a dozen people who were repeatedly applauded by crowds from both sides of the argument, with turnout seemingly larger or more vocal for those who supported the proposal to add language to existing zoning laws that would restrict wind turbine construction from areas that are natural, scenic or historic in nature.
Public confusion in recent days over the exact nature of Monday night’s hearing prompted Town Council Chairman Christopher Semonelli to open the discussion by emphasizing that the hearing was only on those proposed amendments and would not affect a current wind turbine construction project that’s separately moving through the town’s approval process. That project, proposed by Luise Strauss to build a 294-foot wind turbine on her Paradise Road sheep farm adjacent to St. George’s School, was submitted under the existing zoning law passed in February 2010 and would not be affected by any future changes to the zoning laws. The Strauss project is expected to undergo its Special Use Permit review before the Zoning Board sometime in November at a special meeting separately scheduled from regular agenda business, in anticipation of large crowd turnout and public input.
Councilors Richard Cambra and VonVillas echoed similar concerns for public misperception about the current hearing before the council, following a town-wide weekend flyer campaign organized by opponents to the Strauss project to turn out crowds to the zoning amendment hearing to support tougher zoning restrictions on wind turbines.
“Of the emails I received [based on the flyer], two-to-one were about the Strauss project,” noted VonVillas, who asserted that changing the existing zoning laws was “premature” and that, in the heat of the moment with people confusing the two separate issues, the proposed amendments under political pressure might do more harm than good.
To avoid further confusion over her position, she then distributed printed copies of a prepared statement to everyone in the audience (for which she paid to print) and introduced a motion to postpone the hearing until January, after the Strauss project would be decided. A portion of her statement can be viewed here in the video at right.
Although VonVillas considered the Strauss project, in its present form, as being “a blight on the scenic landscape of Middletown,” she wanted the public to understand that the proposed amendments “would have no power to prevent” its construction.
“So why are we discussing amendments now, before we can see if the existing documents meet our needs?” she questioned, then cautioned, “The amendments being proposed do have the power to at least stall any future attempts to construct a town turbine that would provide needed revenue in a devastated economy.”
During Monday’s public comment period over the proposed zoning amendments, Semonelli repeatedly reminded speakers to limit their remarks to the proposed zoning changes—not the Strauss application. “We’re acting on the ordinance tonight, not current projects,” Semonelli reiterated.
Many speakers who turned out to support the ordinance changes Monday night have been publically outspoken on the matter of the Strauss project and reiterated similar concerns raised at those separate meetings.
Richard Price argued that the proposed amendments “would make a difference for the future,” that postponing the discussion to a later date would be “kicking the can down the road,” and that “it’s time to protect scenic vistas.”
While he supports “appropriately sited” wind turbines, especially a town-owned turbine, he said the strong turnout at the night’s hearing demonstrated what happens when a turbine is put at the “wrong site.”
Another woman pointed to the Strauss project as an example and argued that if the “wording in the comprehensive plan was fine, then the proposed project wouldn’t be coming before us.”
Town Council candidates Bruce Long and Arthur Weber Jr. also spoke in support of the proposed zoning law changes: Weber, who chairs the Planning Commission, defended the board’s proposed amendments as being designed only to ensure consistency with the town’s Comprehensive Plan; Long later described the proposed changes as necessary to avoid future litigation in Superior Court from petitioners and he called upon the current council to adopt the changes and institute a moratorium on future applications while the town further studies the wind turbine issue.
Opponents to the proposed zoning changes included Wind Turbine Committee members, as well as supporters of wind energy.
Peter Taargard, who sits on the Wind Turbine Committee, argued that there are few places in Middletown that are not “scenic, natural or historic,” and warned that instituting such narrow language may preclude the town from ever locating a suitable site under those restrictions and one day building its own revenue-generating wind turbine.
Another man removed the framed town seal dedication certificate from the wall on the way to the podium and read it aloud, underscoring Middletown’s rich history and heritage of promoting wind power and preserving historic windmills.
Another woman expressed concern over who would be tasked with the responsibility of determining which sites around town meet the “scenic, historic or natural” criteria for restricting wind turbines, and she also worried that the town might miss out on opportunities to “embrace wind power” and promote clean energy to help mitigate climate change.
Beth Miller, a neighboring resident in Newport, cautioned that “Zoning codes are living documents and should not be used for protecting good things from happening.”
Also during the discussion, Town Solicitor Michael W. Miller sought to clarify the legal implications and repercussions of the zoning ordinance changes. “By adopting these changes, the council would not be voting either ‘pro’ or ‘con’ with regards to wind turbines in Middletown,” said Miller, who has previously described the proposed amendments as legal “housekeeping” to ensure that language in the town’s zoning laws match the town’s Comprehensive Plan.
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