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Consultant to seek consensus on turbine bylaw

From the outside, it may not appear there is any common ground between the various stakeholders impacted by the town’s wind turbines, but there is when it comes to one issue—the future of the machines in Falmouth. And that common ground is what could ultimately move the town forward in creating a zoning bylaw for permitting the erection of turbines after the one-year wind turbine moratorium concludes in May of next year.

Last week Waltham attorney Edith M. Netter, a consultant hired by the town to see whether consensus is possible, presented Falmouth selectmen and the Falmouth Planning Board with the results of her work, which has included meeting and talking

with a number of different parties to discuss their thoughts on wind turbines. Specifically, her goal was to see whether there was an interest among these disparate groups to determine if they would be willing to move forward in creating guidelines for siting turbines.

A lawyer for the past 35 years, Ms. Netter said she has specialized in consensus-building and conflict resolution for 25 of those years. With her work in Falmouth, she said, she spent time not only talking with people, but reading material on wind turbines, from newspaper articles to scientific research. Together, she said, the material she gathered compelled her to “recommend going forward with a consensus-building process.

That is based upon talking with people who generally showed strong interest [in participating] with a few exceptions. There were a couple of neighbors who didn’t talk with me.” She stressed that her findings were independent of the situation surrounding the current wind turbines in Falmouth at the Wastewater Treatment Facility.

With one machine in operation, neighbors were successful in getting selectmen earlier this year to vote to shut it down when wind speeds reach roughly 23 miles per hour. That is a temporary measure the board is taking before it recommends a more permanent one for Town Meeting to adopt. Those living near the turbine have also filed a lawsuit in Barnstable Superior Court appealing the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision in February that upheld Falmouth Building Commissioner Eladio R. Gore’s determination that the first wind turbine could be built without a special permit.

Ms. Netter said she stressed to those interviewed that the issue she was focusing on was solely related to people’s thoughts on the future of turbines in Falmouth, not on past or current conditions.

Among those she contacted were abutters, town officials, wind energy consultants working for the town, scientists and wind turbine developers. “Most people I talked with contributed,” she said. “They said they were glad the town has initiated this process.”

Despite the wide range of opinions, she said there was agreement that green energy was important and there was a shared concern on climate change.

Additionally, Ms. Netter said, people were interested in having smaller, properly sited turbines in Falmouth. That does raise the question, she said, of whether it is
economically feasible to do so. Some of the impediments to consensus, she said, are that there tended to be a lack of civility and trust among the various stakeholders she talked to.

Neighbors, particularly, were upset with Wind 1 and Wind 2, as she said many believe that town officials engaged in a “bait and switch,” bringing in turbines twice as large as the 660-kilowatt machine originally planned for the site. And their complaints included the impact to their health as well as the noise generated by the machine. Neighbors talked about loss of sleep, depression and pressure or ringing in their ears.

Of those she talked with, she said, developers were willing to participate in the process although they had fears about doing so publicly and complained that “neighbors were less than civil. They wondered why should they participate because there is no chance for building turbines here in the future.”

Still Ms. Netter said that “clearly people are interested and willing to engage in a consensus-building process… It is not unanimous, but it is pretty strong.”

Patricia H. Kerfoot of the planning board asked whether those Ms. Netter spoke with understood this process was focused on the future of turbines in town. She worried that this concept was muddled with the hope that it would help resolve their existing troubles. “My scope of services was to talk about the future of the turbines,” Ms. Netter responded. One concern of planning board member Richard K. Latimer is the strong anti-wind sentiment on the Cape, noting there are people who believe wind energy is inferior and will never pay for itself. That was not an opinion she encountered when talking with people, Ms. Netter said.

“Is it possible for us to build consensus right now?” Selectman Kevin E. Murphy asked. He pointed out that his board is in the process of coming up with a recommendation to Town Meeting on how best to mitigate the impacts of the town-owned wind turbine. He suggested that perhaps this should be done first before moving onto the next step, which Ms. Netter was recommending. “Maybe it is premature to build consensus until we find a resolution to our current problem,” he said.

Ms. Netter disagreed, noting that the town’s current moratorium will eventually end and “at some point they [the turbines] will have to be regulated. Another way to answer your question, and I’m not being glib by the way, is people have expressed an interest. There is nothing more important in creating a process than having interested people.”

“Even if something is perceived as intractable, there is a way to solve the problem,” she continued.

Selectman Melissa C. Freitag was cautious about such an approach, citing the lawsuit the neighbors have filed against the zoning board of appeals. “How do we get to consensus with people we are not supposed to be engaging in direct dialogue with?” she asked. James E. Fox of the planning board disagreed, saying that the issue with the existing turbines should be treated separately from how the town will deal with the machines in the future. He said it is important to determine what the town will do in other places where wind turbines may be proposed.

“I guess I’ll ask a question that hasn’t been asked so far,” Selectman Brent V.W. Putnam

said. “Is there any reason why we shouldn’t pursue this process?” “No,” Ms. Netter replied. “I love those kinds of answers,” planning board Chairman Ralph E. Herbst said. He later talked about the need for wind turbine regulations in Falmouth and how far away the town is from settling this issue, pointing out that its existing bylaws reference windmills and not wind turbines.

Chairman of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen asked Ms. Netter how consensus could be reached when there was so much distrust. Ms. Netter said the process is not always 100 percent effective, but if people are willing to engage in a civil discussion, it can work well. She mentioned a mediation case on the North Shore related to a subdivision in that community. All the parties, from residents to town officials to the developer, were at odds and unwilling to speak with one another. In this climate, she said, she stopped at a local bakery one morning before a session, trying a pumpkin muffin. They were so tasty, she said, she bought all of them and brought them to the meeting. “Something happened at that point,” and the groups began to work together, she said. “I don’t know what it was. I didn’t put anything in the pumpkin muffins.” “Clam chowder might work in this town,” Mr. Herbst said, eliciting laughter from those in attendance.

While both boards were in favor of pursuing a consensus-building approach, Mr. Herbst

said the planning board would decide at its next meeting whether it would push the process forward by placing an article on the Town Meeting warrant in November.

If that occurs Ms. Netter would create a more concrete idea of what this approach might look like by preparing a Request for Proposals.

And if a consensus is reached, Assistant Town Planner Marlene V. McCollem said that ultimately the planning board would write the bylaw and present it to a future Town Meeting for approval. She anticipated the bylaw would be a situation in which wind

turbines would require a special permit. The zoning board of appeals would act as the granting authority for such requests. Although the two boards took no public comment last Monday, they will accept input in writing to Ms. McCollem at mmccollem@falmouthmass.us.