West Beach Road residents and two families from the southern part of the island bombarded the Planning Board with scathing criticism of the recently completed draft of the energy component to the comprehensive plan at a crowded and rancorous board meeting Wednesday, September 14.
Vice Chair Norris Pike, who led the meeting in the absence of Chair Margie Comings, repeated several times that the meeting was a public discussion, not a public hearing, and the public would have more opportunity for input as the board worked its way through the document. First, however, the board will be meeting with the Island Energy Plan Committee, which put the plan together, he told the overflow crowd at Town Hall.
The plan, drafted after more than a year and a half by the volunteer energy committee, lays out suggestions for mitigating the island’s high energy costs and is meant, after two stages of review from Planning and the Town Council, to be incorporated in the town’s Comprehensive Plan. It gives suggestions that would work if an offshore wind farm proposed by Deepwater Wind goes forward, and other suggestions if that farm doesn’t materialize – foremost among them, a cable to link the island to the mainland energy grid.
Critiques voiced at the meeting ranged from the writing to the content, which was described as vague, biased and lacking business-stakeholder input, especially from Block Island Power Company. Attendees also complained that the plan ignores important information and would turn West Beach Road into an industrial zone.
Standing at the microphone to speak, opponents Arlene Tunney, John and Rosemarie Ives, Michael Delia and Lloyd Smith brought copies of the plan, some with yellow sticky notes on the pages, and thumbed through them as they spoke, attacking almost every paragraph. Targets included a proposal for gasification and composting of refuse, sparked by fears they would happen near the transfer station on West Beach Road. The speakers, many of whom identify themselves as opponents of the Deepwater wind farm, also charged that the plan is biased in favor of wind turbines in general, and wanted it to incorporate controls on the Deepwater project, including a limit on turbine size. There were also calls for more information on a proposal for municipal takeover of BIPCo.
Tunney, a West Beach Road resident, leveled the charge that committee minutes documented that some members of the committee had missed meetings. Specifically, she said, Kevin Hoyt hadn’t attended any and Sam Bird and Barbara MacMullan missed two of five meetings this year. When queried about how many of the committee’s meetings, which were open to the public, she had attended, she replied none. Neither had the other principal critics of the plan.
Tunney, Smith and others from West Beach Road also brought a lawyer and town planner to the meeting. Lawyer Charles Redihan weighed in with a call for more objective criteria on wind power and biodiesel and a limit on turbine size. Planner Joseph D. Lombardo called for more balancing of the environment and economics, and said there are many good locations on the island for wind power other than the area near his clients.
Town councilor Dr. Peter Baute, who chaired the energy committee, told the gathering the committee had left the plan purposely vague so the Planning Board could “flesh out” areas. He said it was not intended to be a specific call for action, but rather a way to put forward suggestions for further study.
“It’s kind of tough to spend a year and a half on something and hear so many negative comments,” he said. “There are no mandates in this document.”
He cited several examples from the plan of proposals that clearly state a need for more information and evaluation, such as the gasification of refuse and composting. He was particularly stung by criticism from audience member Chris Warfel, saying that “he was one of my mentors on this and his brother John was on the committee.” Warfel had called the plan “poorly written.”
Newly appointed member Socha Cohen suggested, as did audience member Bruce Montgomery, that the board set a schedule to review the components and apprise the public which will be addressed beforehand. She then asked if there would be a public vote on whether or not to accept the plan, a suggestion taken up by the opponents of the plan and repeated later. Pike reviewed the process, which is that the board will digest and evaluate the plan, hold a formal public hearing and then either approve it with changes or not approve it – it won’t go to public vote, he said. If approved, the plan then goes to the Town Council for their evaluation and changes, followed by a public hearing. Finally, it’s the council that decides whether or not to adopt it.
The content of the plan addresses “the possibility of both offshore wind farms within view of the island, and an on-island utility-sized wind turbine” and the need “to comprehensively plan for its energy future.” The focus is to “look beyond the use of fossil fuel for electricity and heating purposes.”
Components of the plan address electric power generation and distribution, solid waste, water use, renewable energy use, energy efficiency and conservation, local and state energy regulations, building design and sustainable development and an implementing actions table. Among the actions suggested under electric power generation and distribution are a power cable to the mainland, a utility sized municipal turbine and additional solar energy, upgrading the capacity of the electric distribution system, adjustment of the rate structure to encourage conservation, and public non-profit ownership of the power plant.
Opponents asked to be able to mark up an online copy of the document with their specific complaints and demands, and the board agreed. The next meeting, with the energy committee, will happen on October 17 at 7 p.m.
The plan is available at Town Hall, and is posted on the town’s website and on the website of the Block Island Resident’s Association.
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