ANTRIM – Antrim officials have proposed changes to town law in hopes of avoiding a repeat of the contentious debate over a wind farm on Tuttle Hill. The battle has pitted an energy company against neighbors, with the town caught in between.
Portsmouth-based Eolian Renewable Energy, through its subsidiary Antrim Wind Energy, has proposed building a wind farm with up to 10 industrial-sized turbines.
Neighbors who live near the proposed site say Tuttle Hill is not the right place for such a project and are suing the town to kill the plans.
The fight for the hill started in October 2009. That’s when Eolian applied for permission from the town’s zoning board to build a temporary tower to test how much wind the site gets. The tower is nearly 50 feet taller than zoning allows.
The zoning board approved the application and the tower was installed the next month on private property off Route 9. Neighbors appealed the board’s decision; their appeal was denied.
Richard Block, who lives near Tuttle Hill, said wildlife there would be devastated. The land, after all, is zoned for rural conservation, he said.
But Eolian’s John M. Soininen, a principal owner and vice president of development, argued that is simply a zoning designation.
“This is not conservation land, this is private property … We’ve leased it from land owners that support what we want to do,” he said.
The challenges didn’t stop there.
To ensure the project was allowed under town regulations, Eolian also applied for approval with the planning board for the test tower.
Here, Eolian identified itself as a public utility, which is permitted to develop in any of the town’s six zoning districts. The planning board approved the company’s plans, agreeing that it is a public utility.
The neighbors again appealed, this time successfully. They argued Eolian should not be considered a public utility, and the zoning board, the deciding body in both appeals, agreed.
The problem is that there is no clear definition of a public utility for the boards to go by, said Town Planner Peter Moore. “We list public utilities as a permitted use in all of our districts, but we don’t define what a public utility is, unfortunately.”
And so the lawsuits began.
Block and his wife, Loranne, are suing the town to reverse the zoning board’s approval of a height variance for the meteorological tower and have it removed. Eolian, meanwhile, is suing the town to reinstate the planning board’s decision.
The cases were consolidated and will be heard together in Hillsborough County Superior Court this spring, Moore said. Until then, the wind farm’s future is on hold.
Now, looking to prevent another back-and-forth like this, the planning board has proposed two amendments to the town’s zoning rules.
The first would permit renewable energy facilities in three district types, including rural conservation districts like Tuttle Hill. Those three types make up about two thirds of the town, Moore said. In the remaining three district types, facilities would be permitted by special exemption.
The second amendment would define renewable energy facilities to make clear what would qualify under the first amendment. Definitions have been a sticking point in the Eolian case.
More than 70 residents turned out to weigh in on the amendments at a heated public hearing Jan. 6. At 10:30 p.m., with no end in sight, officials decided to continue the discussion at a second public hearing, scheduled for Thursday at 6 p.m. at Antrim Town Hall.
If planning board members okay the amendments, voters will see them on March’s ballot.
“It’s been a long process, but I guess you could call it healthy due process,” Moore said afterward.
Block said the proposed definition of renewable energy facilities is too vague and leaves the door open to excessive development.
“What they want to do is open up the town to anything that can be construed as renewable without any controls or limitations on it,” he said.
He also warned if the amendment to allow renewable energy facilities on rural conservation land passes, the Tuttle Hill project would be all but assured.
“It sort of doesn’t matter what the outcome of the court case is,” he said.
Soininen disagreed, saying the amendment wouldn’t give a “green light” to the project but rather clarify the rules for its application with the town. “We all need to know what the rules are,” he said.
The project would still need approval from a number of agencies including the Army Corps of Engineers, the state’s Department of Environmental Services and Fish and Game, he said.
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