After three hours of emotional debate on both sides, the Chilmark zoning board of appeals (ZBA) on Wednesday upheld the town building inspector’s decision to issue building permits for a pair of large wind turbines, planned for two well-known and highly visible commercial farms off South Road.
During a standing room only public hearing at the Chilmark Community Church, the zoning board voted 4-1 to endorse building inspector Lenny Jason’s decision last month to issue permits for wind turbines at Grey Barn Farm and Allen Farm, without hearings of any sort, pursuant to state law allowing such action under certain circumstances for commercial agricultural operations.
In a separate decision, the zoning board decided not to refer the two turbines to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) for review as a development of regional impact (DRI).
Mr. Jason issued the building permits under a state agricultural exemption that allows an applicant to bypass the town zoning bylaws as long as they use more than 50 percent of the energy produced by turbines for commercial agriculture.
Because of this exemption, the zoning board did not review the turbine proposals, and there was no public hearing or public comment invited on the two proposals. Both turbines also fell under the 150-foot threshold that would automatically trigger a review by the MVC.
Earlier this month, a group of neighbors filed two separate petitions appealing the building inspector’s decision while asking the zoning board to refer the turbines to the MVC, prompting the zoning board to schedule Wednesday’s public hearing.
The lack of a public review for the turbines formed the center of the debate Wednesday.
“What you have in front of you is a permit already issued for what will be the tallest structure in Chilmark,” said Eric Turkington, former state representative for the Cape and Islands and an attorney representing the Cobbs Hill Road Association, which opposes the turbine at Grey Barn Farm.
“You approved two turbines before, but after a review for a special permit, during which you asked questions and gathered information as part of the decision-making process. None of that will be part of this decision-making process if you uphold the building inspector’s decision.”
Jonathan Eddy Adler, co-owner of a property next to Allen Farm and one of the petitioners who appealed Mr. Jason’s decision, tried to illustrate the size of the wind turbines.
“I’d like to take moment so everyone can understand just how large this proposed turbine is . . . the turbine would be higher than a 14-story building as it is proposed right now, and will be in the middle of an open space with 36 neighbors around it,” he said.
But others argued the turbines were a healthy addition to the town that produced clean, sustainable energy while helping two popular commercial farms.
“We have taken responsibility for our actions as producers, not only for the next generation and their needs, but the future for many generations to come. It takes guts to really try for sustainable agriculture, it takes being aware,” said Molly Glasgow, co-owner of Grey Barn Farm. “Being aware that life is not only about an ideal of beauty, but a reconsideration of beauty.”
Clarissa Allen, co-owner of the Allen Farm, apologized to her neighbors for not better explaining her plans to them. But she also said the turbine will not be significantly disruptive to her neighbors, and she argued that the turbine is important for the future of her farm.
“The proposed turbine will be in the geographical center of the north side of our farm. It has no bearing on our close neighbors . . . this is a family farm, and the issues surrounding sustainability are incredibly important to us,” she said, adding:
“We want people to become proud of this, to be proud that Chilmark did something with this. And I hope this is a beginning.”
In the end, the zoning board’s decision was largely swayed by a report from the firm of Tighe & Bond, which the selectmen hired earlier this month to explore the central question of whether the two farms will use more than 50 percent of the energy produced by the turbines for commercial farming.
The 20-page report, which the zoning board received on Tuesday, came to the clear conclusion that a majority of the electricity produced by the turbines would be used for farming. With that in mind, Mr. Jason urged the board to support his previous decision to issue the permits.
“Not only am I allowed to give [the applicants] the permits, but I am required to give the permits. The town spent $7,000 for that report to determine they will use more than 51 per cent, and it’s right there, they made their 51 percent,” Mr. Jason said.
After the public hearing closed, zoning board member Frank LoRusso moved to refer the Grey Barn Farm to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. His motion failed when none of his fellow board members seconded it.
Another motion to refer the turbine at Allen Farm failed by a 1-4 vote, with only Mr. LoRusso voting in favor. Board member Chris Murphy, also the chairman of the MVC, then made two separate motions to affirm the building inspector’s decision to issue the permits for the turbines.
Both passed by a 4-1 vote, Mr. LoRusso in dissent each time.
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