For better or worse, Acting Town Manager Heather B. Harper has long been associated with the two wind turbines erected at the Wastewater Treatment Facility and has had to deal with the good and the bad that have come with the projects.
Lately, much of that has been negative with residents in the area angered over concerns about their health and property values.
During the past two weeks that anger has been witnessed at everything from the Zoning Board of Appeals hearing to overturn Falmouth Building Commissioner Eladio R. Gore’s decision to approve the first wind turbine without a special permit, to the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection’s response that additional data beyond the town’s noise study done last year is needed to show the turbines are compliant with state law.
Yesterday, Ms. Harper said she had anticipated there would be a backlash of opposition to the turbines, but admitted she did not expect the intensity of the response. “I wasn’t prepared for that.”
It is a much different climate, she said, than the one that existed when the project was first proposed to residents.
Throughout the process, she said, there was widespread support for the project, which received approval at six different Town Meetings.
“Many of the neighbors did participate in that process,” she said, adding that there were tours of the facility to explain the details of the project.
While there was sufficient public outreach, she said, she realized there would be those who would not be pleased with the final product.
“This is a very large piece of equipment being installed on a 300-acre publicly used property,” she said.
Since the turbine became operational last March, she said, there has been a small number of residents who have been outspoken in their efforts to curtail the use and operation of the wind turbine.
Of that group, 18 hired a lawyer, Christopher G. Senie of Westborough, to represent them before the appeals board as well as during the town’s study of the noise impacts done last summer.
That study, conducted by Harris, Miller, Miller & Hanson of Burlington, came under fire this week when a letter from the DEP, sent to the Falmouth Board of Health at the end of last month, questioned the claims that the noise to be generated by the town’s two wind turbines would not exceed the state’s acceptable limits.
In the letter, Laurel J. Carlson, acting regional director of the DEP, wrote that “our initial review indicates that the Falmouth Wind Turbine Noise Study does not present and aggregate the results in a manner that would allow MassDEP to draw a conclusion regarding the compliance with the MassDEP Noise Policy.”
Town officials came under fire for not releasing the document sooner, with some claiming the town sat on the information as a way to hide it from the public.
Ms. Harper, who was out of town from the end of January to last Thursday, said she did not receive the letter until Thursday.
She admitted that the Falmouth Board of Health should have passed along the information to Mr. Gore beforehand. “That was a shortcoming,” she said.
But she defended the town, stressing that it has been proactive in attempting to determine the impact of the current wind turbine and the potential impacts once the second one is in operation.
Thus far, she said, the town has spent more than $50,000 on the noise study, money that has come from federal stimulus funding for the second turbine.
She was unsure how much the additional work by HMMH would cost the town, but said that much of the information has already been obtained and it is a matter of analyzing it in a way that is satisfactory to the DEP. She was hopeful that the work will lead to a better understanding of the issues related to noise that residents are facing.
As to the larger picture and residents’ frustration, Ms. Harper spoke about the potential for the town to mitigate the impacts of the turbine.
She said the idea to simply halt operation or take down the turbine would be too drastic a measure.
To that, Selectman Mary (Pat) Flynn agreed, stressing it would cost the town the price of installing the turbines, roughly $12 million to $13 million, as well as the loss of energy produced by the turbines.
“I would say that would be $13 to $15 million spread among the taxpayers,” she said.
While Ms. Flynn said she preferred to wait until the appeals board’s decision last night on what selectmen could do in the matter, Ms. Harper said there are several possibilities on the table that could be instituted either at the turbine or in residents’ homes.
She said these would be up for discussion, but at least one option—to shut down the turbine during certain times of day and wind speeds—was rejected by Mr. Senie last year.
While Mr. Senie did not refute this, he said the town’s offer was nowhere near sufficient for his clients.
In October, he said, “we asked that it be turned off anytime the wind got above 22 miles per hour… She responded that it could be shut off from midnight to 3 AM and then only if winds were above 27 miles per hour.”
The letter from Ms. Harper indicates that the town was offering this as a temporary measure to address neighborhood concerns.
To Mr. Senie, the only real solution would be for the town to go through the special permit process, one in which the appeals board would determine what conditions to attach to the operation of the turbine.
“If we don’t have that process, we don’t have a seat at the table,” he said. “There they can make a case for conditions that would be fair.”
Heading into last night’s appeals board hearing he was not confident the board would overturn Mr. Gore’s decision, meaning that unless selectmen were able to provide some relief a court case would be likely.
“They really have no choice,” he said. “Their homes really are in jeopardy. That is their biggest investment and is where they live.”
“There is no doubt in my mind my clients are being injured by Wind 1,” he said, in reference to the first wind turbine.
As to what the town can do, he suggested curtailing its operation by installing permanent monitoring stations and shutting it off when it reaches certain levels.
He admitted the solution will never be perfect, but he wanted to find a middle ground that addresses his clients’ concerns while making the turbines beneficial to the town.
He also proposed another condition in which the turbines would be decommissioned after 20 years and removed.
“That would give the town a chance to get a useful life out of them and at least my clients know at the end of that period they will be taken away,” he said.
As to suggestions regarding tax abatements for his clients, he said, “I don’t think that is the answer… I think the answer is to reduce the noise and time of operation.”
Ms. Harper said she is amenable to discussing possible mitigation strategies with the abutters. So, too, are selectmen, Ms. Flynn said, if it warrants it.
She has heard many of the same complaints Ms. Harper has, but up until this point “selectmen have been out of the loop because Town Meeting voted these.”
Now that the appeals board has upheld Mr. Gore’s decision, Ms. Flynn said, selectmen will “jump on the issue very quickly… selectmen, the town manager and others will have to sit down and decide what the next steps are. We can’t let this continue going the way it is.”
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