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The Chilmark zoning board of appeals upheld two building permits for working farm wind turbines on Wednesday night at a standing-room-only public hearing that saw wide-ranging and at times heartfelt debate.
The turbine permits are for the Grey Barn and Allen farms, both on South Road in Chilmark. The hearing went on for three hours, and in the end the board of appeals also ruled that the turbines did not need to go to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission for review.
“If I thought that there was some real positive thing to be gained by sending this to the MVC, I would send it to the commission,” said Chris Murphy, a member of both the board of appeals and the MVC. “But I think this is a question for Chilmark and I think this meeting goes a long way toward hearing what people had to say. I wish the hearing part took place some time ago. I think that as a town board we would have to look at what’s best for the town. I have no problem with going forward with this,” Mr. Murphy said.
Chilmark building inspector Leonard Jason Jr. issued permits for the farm wind turbines in December under a special agricultural exemption that allows working farms to skip the normal permitting process.
Both turbines are just inches under 150 feet, which means they also would avoid review by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. The Allen Farm turbine will be 149 and a half feet tall, located on the north side of the farm on the back ridge, and the Grey Barn turbine will be 149 feet, nine inches tall. Owned by Clarissa Allen and Mitch Posin, the Allen Farm is a pasture sheep farm that sells meat, wool and compost tea and has been in Ms. Allen’s family for some 300 years. The Grey Barn, formerly the site of Rainbow Farm, was bought two years ago by Eric and Molly Glasgow, who are converting it to a large dairy farm operation.
A group of Chilmark residents who are battling a state plan to build wind turbines in waters off the Vineyard appealed the building inspector’s decision and mounted a concerted campaign against the two farm turbines, challenging the claim that the farms would use the turbines to generate electricity principally for farm use. The opponents also asked the board of appeals to refer the turbines to the MVC for review as developments of regional impact (DRIs).
As a result, the board of appeals sought a ruling from special counsel and commissioned an engineering report to determine whether the turbines meet the requirement that at least 51 per cent of the electricity would be for agricultural use.
The report from consultants at Tighe and Bond and opinion from special counsel Eric Wodlinger this week both found that the turbines meet the requirements of the agricultural exemption.
Nevertheless, the opponents pressed their case.
“We’ve all experienced the timeless beauty . . . and want to preserve the essential qualities of the Vineyard,” said Allen Farm abutter Jonathan Adler. “This would be higher than a 14-story building in the middle of open space with 36 neighbors around it. The noise factor for an abutter who resides near the proposed site would be a constant low rumble and whoosh sound if they keep it on at all times. It doesn’t only affect the neighbors but it also affects the natural environment.”
But Clarissa Allen said she hoped bringing clean energy to the Vineyard for farming purposes would set a new standard for future generations.
“[The] turbine can be part of everybody’s landscape and I hope people come to be proud of it and proud that Chilmark did something like this,” Ms. Allen said. “I hope this is a beginning for our community.”
Mr. Glasgow said he and his wife took neighbors into careful account when they planned the siting for their turbine.
“This is as good a wind turbine project that Chilmark might see, we’re not opening the floodgates . . . The [51 per cent] standard is actually quite difficult to reach, and most farmers don’t use an awful amount of electricity,” he said.
Members of the farming community turned out to support the project.
“I’m a farmer and I have a wind turbine, in fact I have the very model these farmers are considering putting up,” said Morning Glory Farm owner James Athearn, who has had a turbine up at his Edgartown farm since last May. “People have had a good chance to experience it and one of the reasons I put it up . . . was to be the man to put up the turbine and find out what it would do and at least we’d learn something from it,” he added.
“The Allens and the Glasgows need to get on with their farming, I support this happening,” Native Earth Teaching Farm owner Rebecca Gilbert said. “Farmers are very busy without figuring out the cutting edge stuff. I thank them for giving the town an opportunity to move into a better future.”
In the end the board of appeals voted 4 to 1 to uphold the building inspector after finding that the turbines met the requirements of the agricultural exemption, and not to refer them to the commission for review.
Board member Frank LoRusso was the lone dissenter, who moved strongly for MVC review. “I can’t think of anything that would have more of an effect on our community and open up the doors to other turbines down the road,” Mr. LoRusso said, taking special note of the height issue. “They brought it to an absolute maximum and I don’t agree that just for that six inches it doesn’t go to the commission . . . as far as DRIs go, I can’t think of a better time,” he said.
But Grey Barn neighbor and former Chilmark selectman David Damroth said he put his faith in Mr. Jason’s decision. “Half a lifetime ago I appointed Lenny to his job, and over the years I’m very proud of his performance as building inspector,” Mr. Damroth said. “I completely support Eric and Molly’s work because what they’ve done to that farm has been nothing less than amazing.”
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