FALMOUTH – The Falmouth building commissioner isn’t the only one who could have requested that the town follow the special permit process for its controversial turbine.
The board of selectmen, acting as the owners of the 1.65-megawatt municipal turbine off Blacksmith Shop Road, has the right to request a special permit process at any point, according to Frank Duffy, the town’s attorney.
But that’s news to selectmen. All five board members, along with acting Town Manager Heather Harper, said Wednesday they had no idea directing the zoning board of appeals to go through the special permit process was in their purview.
For nearly a year, dozens of residents have complained about negative health effects from noise, vibrations and shadow flicker from the town-owned turbine known as Wind I. That led to an appeal before the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals, on the grounds a special permit was needed to erect the turbine.
The zoning board has been holding contentious and emotional public hearings for more than two months to determine whether Eladio Gore, Falmouth’s building commissioner, should have required a special permit.
A final vote is expected tonight.
Instead of trying to figure out if Gore erred, the zoning board’s time would have been better spent focused on the special permit process had it had been given the directive by selectmen, said Christopher Senie, the attorney representing more than a dozen residents who live near the turbine.
“The only way to bring some resolution here is to give people a chance to comment at the public hearing on a special permit application,” he said. “It’s healthy for the community and will probably get us to a solution.”
Senie said zoning laws allow a property owner to simply request a special permit.
Once selectmen were told of their potential to intervene Wednesday, they had different opinions on how to proceed.
Board Chairman Brent Putnam said a special permit should have been required right from the start. He compared it to the recent approval of a dog park on Brick Kiln Road, which required the notification of abutters via certified letter along with a public hearing.
“We did it for the dog park but you’re telling me we’re putting up a turbine near town residents and we’re not giving them a forum to raise their concerns and be heard?” Putnam said. “There’s something that needs to be fixed here with this process.”
Selectman David Braga mirrored Putnam’s sentiments and said Harper told him six weeks ago that selectmen did not have jurisdiction over the permit. “Now I’m being told we do have jurisdiction. Right now I just think we owe it to these people to listen to them in a public hearing,” he said.
Harper said the mistake was not intentional. She did not believe selectmen had the power to call for a special permit. However, she reaffirmed her faith in Gore’s decision to exempt the town from the special permit process and said she is focused on today’s hearing.
“Let’s get through (today) and get a decision from the zoning board,” Harper said. “I’m hoping this is an opportunity for a de-escalation of both parties and a return to meaningful dialogue.”
Selectman Ahmed Mustafa said he is not opposed to selectmen initiating a special permit process, while selectmen Mary “Pat” Flynn and Melissa Freitag said they will wait for the outcome of today’s hearing before deciding.
Neil Andersen, the neighbor who filed the zoning appeal, recently stood up at a public meeting and spoke of suicide because he said the turbine has disrupted his life so much. He said he is pleased selectmen are finally taking notice.
“From day one we’ve been looking for anybody to help us,” Andersen said. “It’s definitely nice to know we have another avenue.”
If the zoning board of appeals rejects Andersen’s appeal, one of the few remaining options is to sue the town, Senie said.
That could be avoided if selectmen request a special permit.
“We can and should solve this in Falmouth,” Senie said. “The ZBA knows how to do their job, it’s just that the town has never engaged them.”