SALEM – State Rep. John Keenan stands in the crosswinds of the wind turbine fight in Massachusetts.
As a state representative from Salem, he has come out in favor of a proposal by Mayor Kim Driscoll, a plan that has stirred strong opposition from neighbors, to build a 380-foot turbine on Winter Island, a city park.
As chairman of the House Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy, Keenan is headed to two state hotbeds this month to hold public hearings on legislation that would streamline the permitting and appeals process for land-based wind energy proposals.
This bill is aimed at large wind energy facilities and would not affect Salem, which is eyeing a 1.5-megawatt turbine, nor a smaller project in Swampscott.
Similar legislation stalled last year when opposition arose on both ends of the state, the Berkshires and Cape Cod.
The first of two scheduled hearings by a House-Senate joint energy committee will be held tomorrow at the Jiminy Peak Mountain Resort in western Massachusetts. Another hearing is scheduled for Sept. 26 in West Barnstable.
“There were some definite pockets of opposition, primarily down on the Cape and out in the Berkshires …” Keenan said. “When I became chairman this year and Sen. Downing (Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield) became chairman in the Senate, we decided we would go to locations where there was the most opposition.”
While there are many concerns about wind turbines, ranging from bird kills to the potential impacts on human health, Keenan said it “usually boils down to whether or not there is still local control and how and if you can oppose those proposals in your community.”
The new law would require communities with extensive wind resources to create a permitting board, and give other cities and towns the option of setting up a single board, thus avoiding the often daunting task many proponents face of seeking a series of local approvals. A city or town, Keenan said, also could designate an existing board, such as a planning board, to hear the wind proposals.
The creation of this new board would not remove the responsibility of a city council or other local entity to approve financing for such plans.
The new law also would expedite the appeal process, Keenan said, by sending appeals of local approvals directly to the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board and, if necessary, on to the Supreme Judicial Court, the state’s highest court. It would eliminate district and superior court appeals by wind opponents.
The goal of the legislative reforms, Keenan said, is to maintain local oversight and opponents’ appeal rights, while streamlining, or speeding up the approval process.
“A lot of times opponents will try to appeal to one level and the next level, hoping they’re going to run out the clock … and wear down the proponents,” he said. “In this bill, we allow local control – you can still deny it locally, but if a permit is approved, you have a quicker appeal process.”
This legislation was triggered by the 2008 Green Communities Act, which set a goal of creating 2,000 megawatts of wind energy capacity in this state by 2020. Massachusetts has a long way to go. As of Aug. 1, there are only 40 megawatts, according to Keenan’s office.
The bill deals only with land-based wind energy proposals, not wind farms on water, and only with wind facilities that generate 2 to 100 megawatts. Thus, it would not apply to Salem’s 1.5-megawatt proposal nor Swampscott’s 900-kilowatt plan.
Keenan is not one of the leaders of the Salem wind project, but he is a strong supporter and said he plans to reach out to opponents who contend the siting has been “predetermined” by the mayor and the city’s Renewable Energy Task Force.
The city has selected the best site based on wind tests and other factors, he said.
“We’re transitioning to a new era, and change is always difficult, but I think the neighborhood down there also has legitimate concerns, and it’s my job (and the mayor’s) to make sure we answer all those questions …
“It appears that is the appropriate site in Salem to put a windmill, but, again, people have concerns that need to be addressed, whether it’s the sound issue or the use of that particular park. I’m not saying, and nobody’s saying, it’s a foregone conclusion …”
Some of the concerns raised in Salem and in other communities have to do with public health. The state Department of Environmental Protection, Keenan said, is expected to release a report this fall by a panel of scientists and other experts addressing those issues.
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