Before Thanksgiving, many of the residents opposing the Stamp Farm turbine had no idea what a setback was, how to identify a nacelle or what Vestas made. After much research on the Internet, those terms and names are lodged in their vocabulary.
In letters to newspapers, town officials and in public meetings, they’ve aired their grievances and concerns regarding both the Stamp Farm and the North Kingstown Green turbine, as well as the town’s newly-minted wind energy ordinance.
During their research, this group of residents found a host of unsettling photos of fallen turbines sprawled across highways and tracts of land. The prospect of a something the height of a skyscraper crashing down on North Kingstown has definitely been a worry for many, but both Mark DePasquale – the developer of both turbines – and town Planning Director Jon Reiner aim to ease their concerns.
While looking at an image of a downed turbine sent to him by a concerned resident, Reiner points to the base of the turbine. “Look at the footing on it,” he said. “There’s practically nothing there, so this was more of a case of bad construction than anything.”
DePasquale promises the footings for his turbines will be substantial. Shaped like an octagon, the concrete footing will be 65-by-65 feet with 100 tons of steel, weighing in at more than 3.4 million pounds.
“That doesn’t even include the earth we put back on top of it,” DePasquale added.
Turbines’ prospective effects on property value have received considerable air time with locals. Some studies suggest property values near these structures could drop as far as 30 to 40 percent, while others insist the impact is “minimal.”
Aside from safety concerns, many residents worry about the health impact of wind turbines. One concern they point to is shadow flicker, caused by the sun’s rays beaming through the revolving blades. Aside from being a nuisance, the flicker may be able to cause seizures, some opponents have said. However, according to findings by the Epilepsy Foundation, the American Wind Energy Association asserts that the spinning blades won’t move fast enough to induce a seizure, as the frequency of light most likely to cause a seizure ranges between five to 30 flashes per second.
Despite that, one North Kingstown man insists his health may be at risk, and he has a doctor’s note to back him up.
Josh Essex lives at 288 South County Trail, directly across from Stamp Farms and what could be a 427-foot turbine. Since he suffers from brain cancer, his brother Joel has regularly attended meetings to speak for Essex. At the Dec. 13 meeting, Joel Essex presented the Town Council with a letter from his brother’s doctor stating that, due to Josh’s breakthrough seizures, it would be “in the patient’s best interest to not build the turbine by his home.”
Another growing health concern is “wind turbine syndrome.” New York pediatrician Nina Pierpont coined the term in her peer-reviewed book, “Wind Turbine Syndrome” in which she asserts that the low-frequency noise, called infrasound, emitted by turbines can cause dizziness, nausea, insomnia and other less-than-desirable maladies. A few alleged cases have cropped up across the country.
The topic has spurred controversy, with organizations like American Wind Energy Association refuting the legitimacy of infrasound. In a brief by RenewableUK, a trade group representing UK wind and marine renewables industries, Dr. Geoff Leventhall – a consultant in noise vibration – wrote, “I can state quite categorically that there is no significant infrasound from current designs of wind turbines.”
Legitimacy of the concerns aside, many can be allayed by imposing proper setbacks – the word of the night at the Dec. 13 Town Council meeting where residents like Jeff Zucchi, Robin Wilson and about 10 others took to the mic to air their concerns.
Zucchi said North Kingstown’s setback restrictions are far too permissive, especially when compared with the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management’s findings and manufacturer Vestas’ recommendations. According to Zucchi’s findings, Vestas recommends setbacks of 800 feet from roadways and 1,500 feet from residences. Vestas spokesperson Andrew Longteig said, however, that Vestas defers siting decisions to developers and municipalities
“The Planning Commission looked at setbacks quite thoroughly,” Reiner said. “The commission felt a 1,500-foot setback was a bit onerous. It was really the noise and shadow flicker that determined the setback more than anything.”
Zucchi and others sited a 2009 study, in which the DEM suggested setbacks of 1.5 times the height of the complete unit. According to DEM’s Tom Getz, who conducted the 2009 Terrestrial Wind Turbine Siting Report, comparing his findings to the town’s findings would be comparing apples and oranges. Unlike North Kingstown’s prospective turbines, Getz was solely studying turbines on state property in Narragansett.
“The siting information we have is based on potential wind turbines in Narragansett and the setback was such that we were trying to protect public health, the environment and property,” Getz said.
Getz was tasked with assessing wind energy in Narragansett for state use because the town has some of the state’s highest winds. Getz also said he was conservative in his setback estimations because the land in question was state property and open to the public. With no state regulations on wind turbines, Getz stresses that the decision ultimately rests with the municipality.
“Everything is risk-based,” he said. “The reason I went conservative with setbacks was because this was on state property and the public would be there, but it’s really up to the town on how they want to manage risk. If a turbine falls down and blocks the road, is that an acceptable risk?”
Though Getz would not state whether he thought North Kingstown’s setbacks were restrictive enough, the consensus among the group of concerned residents is a resounding “no.”
“They’ve decided to go with setback distances that are ridiculously small so they can fit on properties in town,” said Long Lane resident Robin Wilson. “Someone is putting the residents at risk for some other gain, and that is fundamentally wrong.”
For Reiner, the road to the ordinance was a careful and measured one.
“We didn’t just throw out any ordinance that didn’t have any work or effort behind it,” Reiner said. “This ordinance took a year to create and 10 to 12 Planning Commission meetings where we really got into the minutia of it.”
Town Council President Liz Dolan echoed Reiner, adding, “There was a lot of concern that this was rushed through. Public discussion on this goes all the way back to 2007. There was ample time to think about it and participate.”
Some residents aren’t calmed by this, however, and were particularly worried by Dolan’s comments that the ordinance wasn’t “perfect” on the night it was passed.
“If she admits it’s not perfect, it shouldn’t have been passed,” said Matt Richardson, who lives next to the Stamp Farm at Hemsley Tree Farm.
In November Richard Schartner, Sr., whose farm sits next to the Stamps, filed a complaint in Superior Court against the North Kingstown Town Council following its passage of the new ordinance.
Though the previous Town Council unanimously voted to approve the ordinance, newly-elected Councilman Charles Brennan does not share the council’s eagerness. Dependent on public sentiment, Brennan said he would consider a moratorium on future wind projects.
North Kingstown is not the only town in Rhode Island battling with resident opposition to such ordinances. Last month, Charlestown’s new Town Council voted for a freeze on new wind projects and sent the town’s wind energy ordinance back to its Planning Commission for rewrites.
Both Middletown and Newport have also seen residents, developers and town officials clash on the issue. In Middletown, resident Luise Strauss withdrew her application for a 294-foot wind turbine on her sheep farm amidst the turmoil.
For State Rep. Laurence Ehrhardt, R-North Kingstown, the process is a journey that towns should not have to be taking alone. In his testimony at the Dec. 13 meeting, Ehrhardt said the Rhode Island Statewide Planning Commission was tasked in 2007 with creating standards and guidelines for the location of renewable energy sources and facilities.
“Statewide planning, for one reason or another, has not done that job,” Ehrhardt said.
He has since talked to the commission, which has indicated it is working on an update and hopes to have a rough outline in the spring. Ehrhardt said the commission will use the DEM report as an “important baseline piece in the development of their guidelines.”
“It makes sense that, if there’s a question or problem showing up in towns all over the state, the state should step in,” he added. “There’s no reason to reinvent the wheel.”
On Jan. 4, the Planning Commission will hold a second public hearing on the Stamp Farm wind turbine proposal. Town officials hope for a larger turnout than in previous commission meetings surrounding the topic.
“At many of these Planning Commission meetings before we passed the ordinance, there were less than five people in the audience,” Reiner said. He is likely to see appreciably more residents at Tuesday’s meeting, scheduled for 7 p.m. at the North Kingstown High School auditorium. All are encouraged to attend.