Over the past several months, Barnstable County officials have worked to craft regulations governing the siting and review of onshore wind turbines.
Throughout the process there was an air of urgency; a number of county officials noted that the Patrick Administration was actively promoting land-based wind energy development, and fretted that if Cape Cod did not set its own ground rules quickly, the state could set ground rules that ignored the region’s unique qualities and concerns.
Ironically, a Cape legislator has filed a bill that would establish statewide siting standards for onshore turbines. State Representative Demetrius J. Atsalis (D – Barnstable) filed legislation for the 2011 – 2012 session that would set a mandatory 3,000-foot minimum buffer zone between land-based turbines and the nearest residence or residentially zoned parcel of land.
Rep. Atsalis said the bill, H.01757, was filed during a previous legislative session and re-filed this year on behalf of a constituent, and he was quick to note that he did not personally back the proposal.
“I’m a big supporter of land-based wind turbines,” he said, “so it’s not high on my priority list. It’s not one that I’m going to pay attention to because I don’t want to get in the way of any land-based turbines.”
The bill cites numerous annoyances and alleged hazards posed by industrial-class turbines, ranging from “the potential to reduce property values” to “the noise and vibration stemming from the operation of large scale industrial wind turbines [which] may cause nearby residents to suffer from a health condition known as ‘wind turbine syndrome’.”
Wind turbine syndrome is a term coined by Dr. Nina Pierpont in her book “Wind Turbine Syndrome – A Report on a Natural Experiment,” a study of 10 families showing “seemingly incongruous constellation of symptoms” that comprise wind turbine syndrome, including irregular heartbeat, nausea, tinnitus (a persistent ringing in the ears), headaches, vision problems, and sleep disturbance.”
Dr. Pierpont maintains in her book that the low-frequency noise generated by wind turbines is the root cause for this condition, which is currently not recognized by any medical organization in the US as a legitimate diagnosis.
Rep. Atsalis’s bill refers a number of times to industrial-class turbines, but the language for the ban itself does not explicitly target a specific type of turbine; the bill simply states that “no wind turbine may be erected or installed in the Commonwealth at a site that is closer than 3,000 feet from any residence or residentially zoned property.”
In other words, if passed as written the measure would affect small residential turbines as well as commercial and industrial turbines.
The 3,000-foot setback defined in Rep. Atsalis’s bill is more restrictive than the standards outlined in the proposed regulations approved last month by the Cape Cod Commission. Those regulations, which are tentatively due for a final vote this month before the Barnstable County Assembly of Delegates, would establish a setback for noise mitigation purposes of 10 times the turbine’s blade diameter.
In the case of a large turbine, such as Falmouth’s town-owned turbine on Blacksmith Shop Road, the 3,000-foot standard would prove only slightly more restrictive. That turbine’s blade diameter is 269 feet, meaning that the county-proposed setback would be 2,690 feet (although, as a pre-existing turbine, it would be grandfathered from both the county’s and Rep. Atsalis’s proposed setback range).
For smaller turbines, however, the setback could be considered disproportionate. According to the Cape and Islands Energy Information Clearinghouse, residential turbines generally sport a rotor diameter between four and 43 feet.
Rep. Atsalis said that if the bill were to pass as written, the law would supersede any local regulations; local regulations and bylaws may be more restrictive than state law, but not less restrictive. However, he said the bill could be amended to provide an exemption for any community that had enacted their own regulations.
Paul J. Niedzwiecki, executive director of the Cape Cod Commission, said the CCC has worked with the Legislature and state departments before to ensure the Cape retains as much regulatory control as possible, and expected this would be the case with this bill.
Rep. Atsalis also filed a bill that would allow towns to block the development of offshore wind turbines within town-controlled coastal waters. State Representatives Timothy R. Madden (D – Nantucket) and David T. Vieira (R – Falmouth) co-filed an identical bill, which would give town officials the authority to create “wind development exclusion zones” that ban wind turbine development within the first 1,500 feet of ocean as measured from the town coastline (coastal waters more than 1,500 feet and up to three miles out are under state jurisdiction).
“We need a reasonable regulatory environment, on the water and on land,” Rep. Vieira said, noting that Massachusetts is still developing a comprehensive process for on- and offshore wind turbine siting, review, and regulation.
“I’m not against wind turbine development, I just don’t want to see a repeat of what happened in Falmouth,” he said, referring the ongoing issues with the town-owned turbine, which critics claim did not follow a proper siting and review process.
Mr. Niedzwiecki said this measure would not conflict with special regulations the Cape Cod Commission is preparing as per the Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan (OMP). The OMP directs regional planning agencies such as the CCC to craft regulations to determine the “appropriate scale” for offshore renewable energy projects – specifically for up to 24 offshore wind turbines.
The Cape Cod Commission has been working on this issue since last year, and plans to enact the regulations by the end of Fiscal Year 2011. At present, the first three miles of ocean, after the first 1,500, feet are under a moratorium activated by the Cape Cod Ocean District of Critical Planning Concern (DCPC) process.
Mr. Niedzwiecki said the DCPC process would also produce a model bylaw that towns could adopt at the local level giving them the authority to create wind development exclusion zones. “They don’t need to go through the Legislature,” he said.
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