ASHFIELD – On the evening of Thursday, Nov. 18 more than 60 Ashfield residents met at the Main Street Community Hall for an informal discussion on a pending wind energy proposal.
In June, Barnstable-based Clear Sky Energy (CSE) expressed interest in installing eight to 10 wind turbines on Ridge Hill. The rise, with a peak elevation of 1,582 feet, parallels Ashfield’s Main Street and is a half-mile north of the thoroughfare.
Following CSE’s overture, six residents have banded together as the Ashfield Wind Study Group to disseminate information on wind power to the community.
“This was never [suggested as] and anti-wind meeting,” Ron Coler, a group member who was recently appointed ot the town wind turbine site study committee, told the assembly. “We are clearly, as par of our mandate, not opposed to wind [projects]. We do feel that responsible siting of wind facilities is critical for the town.”
Coler, who lives proximate to Ridge Hill, noted that another informal organization of 20 residents has raised almost $8,000 for a “baseline noise study” of Ashfield. It would establish the existing sound level of the neighborhoods adjoining Ridge hill and factor in what the disturbance to that baseline might be with the potential installation of wind turbines.
A smorgasbord of negative comments
The focus of the evening was the presentation of a 39-minute film, “Industrial Wind Energy Information,” an amalgam of complaints from residents living near wind turbines in Maine, New York and Kansas. As the film segued from subject to subject, the soundtrack was bridged with the grating sound of a turbine, which some residents, on camera, described as the sound of a jet engine. For opponents of wind turbines, the film provided a steady smorgasbord of negative comments, ranging from loss of wildlife and disruption of farm stock to the claim that the “aerodynamic noise” of the rotors can be heard up to five miles away in at least one locality.
There was a noticeable hush to the assembly when visual evidence was presented as to the strobe, or “fluttering” effect that installations may create when the sun is low on the horizon. The constant flickering created inside on neighboring household was nightmarish. Equally unsettling was the outdoor footage of lengthy, shuttering shadows cast by moving propellers.
“You never get used to it,” one resident said.
Q and A
“I don’t know who decided that this video was balanced, although I agreed with some of the points,” Ashfield resident Justin Schuman said.
He then noted a 2009 study by Mass. General Hospital physician Robert McCunney which concluded that there were no serious ill effects among homeowners living near turbines. McCunney’s study also noted that people opposed to turbines were 13 times more predisposed to general complaints. (Psychologists call this “motivated reasoning.”)
In rebuttal, Andy Wells, a member of the informational group, cited a study of Mars Hill, Maine residents living within 3,500 feet of an installation. Dr. Michael Nissenbaum, a Northern Maine Medical Center physician, found that in a nonscientific sampling of nine households, 15 people complained of sleeplessness, headaches and dizziness.
(The doctors have become a convenient Punch-and-Judy act in the wind turbine debate. McCunney has been chastised for his relationship with the American Wind Energy Association. Nissenbaum has been criticized for not providing a more scientific sampling of potential medical concerns. There seems to be agreement, however, that a comprehensive medical study of turbine residents has yet to be undertaken.)
“It is a very biased film,” Walt Cudnohufsky, a member of the informational group said, speaking from his home after the meeting. “It doesn’t matter if half of what is there is true or if any inkling is true, and it is. You’ve got to worry; there’s this growing evidence [of negative effects]. We aren’t sitting back and waiting. It’s a big deal. it’s a problem.”
On the walls of the Community Hall, Cudnohufsky displayed several drawings based upon the existing wind energy installation at Searsburg, Vermont. He refuted earlier statements from CSE staffers suggesting that potential access roads to Ridge Hill would only require a width of 15 feet.
“It’s a total lie,” he said. “They just can’t do it.”
His “guesstimates” suggest that the roads would require a width of 16 feet with 11-foot shoulders to either side as well as clearing additional side slopes of approximately 65 feet to accommodate fill material. In his opinion, the ridge would require major blasting and each wind turbine would require four acres of level ground.
Wells affirmed that, among his group, it’s “a foregone conclusion” that there will be an eventual installation of turbines somewhere in Ashfield. He expressed concern over the pending Massachusetts State Senate bill H.4955, referred to as the “Wind Energy Siting Reform Act.”
Wells’ interpretation is that the bill, if enacted in its present form, may circumscribe “home rule.” If a community voted against a turbine developer, he/she could appeal to a state superior court.
“The town would effectively lose its ability to control its own program with the state fast-tracking [the process],” he said.
Ashfield Planning Board Chairman Mike Fitzgerald said a short time later that “it does look like the state is going to make us do this at some time… there’s a lot of teeth in that state bill.”
Resident Frank Kearney took note of a Department of Energy map indicating that the winds off the Massachusetts coastline are rated as “outstanding” while Ashfield is rated as “poor” to “marginal.”
“It makes you suspicious [that developers would] come into Ashfield of all places to torment us with these ugly things,” he said.
In a July meeting at Town Hall, Harry Dodson, a member of the informational group, said that Ashfield is in the crosshairs of wind energy development, given that it has the largest tracts of privately owned land in Franklin County. He said that only recently, under the Patrick administration, have several western Massachusetts sites been upgraded from “poor” to “good.” In his opinion, the upgrading has been “political.”
(Springfield-based Echo For Sustainable Development has received approval to install a wind gauge at another potential site approximately one mile south of Sanderson Academy.)
Dodson told the assembly that the situation was similar to that in the 1930s when four towns in the Swift River Valley were flooded to create the Quabbin Reservoir, accommodating the water needs of the Boston area.
“The sacrifice is for a technology that really may not be green,” he said. “It has to be backed up by coal and oil.”
As the meeting concluded, Coler said that this presentation was the first in a series of informational meetings.
“We’re trying to incite public participation,” he said. “I’ve seen the legislation. [It] will basically shove this down our throats.”
“This is going to be an ugly, divisive fight in Ashfield,” Kearney said. “If you pussyfoot about it, you’re going to lose.”
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