The conflicting interests that swirl around plans to place large wind turbines on private property will be aired when the Chilmark zoning board of appeals (ZBA) holds a public hearing Wednesday on permits issued without public review to Grey Barn Farm and Allen Farm, both on South Road.
Neighbors claim that town building inspector Lenny Jason erred when he issued building permits under an agricultural exemption in the Massachusetts General Law. The exemption provides that town zoning bylaws may not “prohibit, unreasonably regulate or require a special permit” for a turbine, provided they are used for the primary purpose of commercial agriculture.
As a result, the town’s zoning board of appeals did not review the turbine proposals. The zoning board would normally have the power to grant or deny special permits for such structures.
At 147.5 feet, the turbines also fall under the 150-foot threshold that automatically triggers a review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) as a development of regional impact.
In letters to the ZBA, neighbors said the size and scope of the turbines alone call for some kind of review and opportunity for public comment, regardless of the agricultural exemption in the state law.
In response, executive secretary Tim Carroll requested a legal opinion from town attorney Eric Wodlinger.
Mr. Wodlinger replied that applicants can only receive the agricultural exemption if their farms prove they will use a majority of the electricity generated from the turbines for commercial farming.
At their regular meeting on December 21, selectmen agreed to hire the consulting firm of TKE and Barnes, at a cost of $7,200, to gather data and prepare a report to help the zoning board determine if the wind turbines meet technical requirements.
ZBA administrator Chuck Hodgkinson said this week the firm is still gathering information, although he expected them to complete their report in time for Wednesday’s public hearing. He said the information they provide will be invaluable in helping the zoning board make an informed decision.
The ZBA has scheduled a public hearing to review the issue at 5 pm, Wednesday, at the Chilmark Community Church.
Allen Farm overlooks both Chilmark upper pond and a scenic meadow where sheep often graze. Reached this week, Clarissa Allen said she has been contacted by the consulting firm and is helping them gather the information they need. She is confident the data will show that over half of the energy produced by the turbines will go toward farming uses.
She said she was surprised the turbine proposal at her farm has generated so much debate around town.
“I’ve heard from people with worries and concerns, and I’ve heard from people who support what we’re trying to do. Thankfully, most people I’ve talked to have been supportive,” she said.
Ms. Allen said she believes people are under the impression the tower will be built on the same site as the meteorological tower that was put up last year. The new turbine will instead be built closer to the center of the farm, with a large buffer between the neighbors’ property lines.
“It’s in the middle of our property. Many of the homes around us have expansive views; and yes, the turbine will be something different. But I don’t think this will ruin anyone’s enjoyment of their property,” she said.
Ms. Allen said the wind turbine will be 149.5 feet high and capable of producing 50 kilowatts of electricity under optimal conditions. She said the turbine will be approximately the same height as the one currently standing at Morning Glory Farm in Edgartown.
Although she is cooperating with the consulting firm, she is skeptical of critics’ demands that her turbine proposal undergo a review by the MVC, when the state law specifically allows for an exemption for commercial farms.
“Most people have to jump through a zillion hoops just to consider putting up a wind turbine. But if it’s being constructed as an agricultural structure, the law makes it possible for farmers to move through the process a little easier,” she said.
She also cited the recently completed Island Plan, the ambitious planning initiative by the MVC, that seeks to chart the Island’s course over the next 50 years.
“One of the reasons we seriously considered the turbine was that the MVC [in the Island Plan] put forth the belief that we should be more sustainable and create more food and energy locally,” Ms. Allen said. “And this is the perfect confluence of those two ideas.”
Mitchell Posin, Ms. Allen’s husband and co-owner of the Allen Farm, said the wind turbine is essential to the couple’s plans to expand the farm. “Farming requires a lot of energy. If you want to do a greenhouse, for example, you have to heat it, and that costs a lot of money,” he said.
“The current cost of electricity is keeping us from doing things that would make this farm much more productive. If we get the turbine, we can do more; offer more crops, and offer them at different times of the year,” he said.
Eric Glasgow is the owner of the Grey Barn Farm, the former Rainbow Farm, located near the West Tisbury town line. He and his wife Molly are newcomers to the Vineyard and farming but have big plans for their property.
Reached by phone, Mr. Glasgow declined to comment. According to town officials, the wind turbine planned for Grey Barn will also be about 149.5 feet high.
Mr. Jason this week said he believed he was within the state law when he issued the permits for the turbines under the agricultural exemption. He said issuing the permits was only the first step; gathering the data regarding energy use will come later.
“After the turbines are built, I will gather the info about the electricity before I issue a [certificate of] occupancy. That’s the process,” he said.
Mr. Jason said he would have explained this process to the neighbors if they had contacted him, but instead they sent their letters directly to the zoning board of appeals. “I never talked to any of them,” he said.
Mark London, executive director of the MVC, said this week that the commission’s wind energy work group sent model regulations to the six Island towns at the end of December and asked them to modify the regulations how they see fit.
The MVC currently has a moratorium in place for all land-based wind turbines on the Island over 150 feet, with the exception of Edgartown, until November, although each town is expected to vote on their own wind regulations at the annual town meetings this spring, which may differ from the MVC guidelines but cannot be less stringent.
Any turbine over 150 feet is automatically referred to the MVC for a review as a development of regional impact.
Mr. London said the model regulations contain language that would have triggered a review of the turbines at Allen Farm and Grey Barn. Those regulations state that any turbine exempt from a town review – such as those proposed for a school, church or farm – would be reviewed by the MVC.
“The suggestion is that the environment of this Island if of such great concern, as evidenced by the fact that the state legislature created the commission, that any proposal for a larger wind turbine should be reviewed by the commission if it isn’t going to be reviewed by the town,” he said.
Mr. London said this might not apply to smaller wind turbines, but would likely apply to the two turbines in Chilmark, which are larger and visible from a distance.
Mr. London said he has heard grumblings from some who believe the two farms skirted the regulations by building the turbines 149.5 feet high, mere inches from the 150-foot threshold that would have triggered a review by the commission.
But Mr. London said he does not necessarily agree with that logic.
“That issue came up at one of our [wind] planning sessions, and all I can say is that it matters how you look at it. If the speed limit is 55 miles an hour and someone is going 54 miles an hour, are they skirting the law or are they respecting the law?” he said.
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