A reform bill that would streamline permitting, and reduce the number of regulations for large land-based wind turbines brought about 90 testifiers and interested citizens to Barnstable High School’s Knight Auditorium Thursday.
They were there to support or oppose eight proposed bills by the State Legislature’s Joint Committee on Telecommunications, Utilities and Energy in a six-hour public hearing.
It was the second such hearing conducted by the Committee. The first was held September 7 in Hancock in the western part of the state. A September 26 hearing scheduled at Cape Cod Community College was delayed until Thursday so that legislators could debate the casino issue.
The hearings were held in the Berkshires and on the Cape by the Committee, according to Co-Chair Benjamin B. Downing (D-Pittsfield). He told CapeCodToday.com, “Most public hearings take place at the State House. But our committee felt strongly that the wind energy bills, specifically siting reform bills, should be discussed in the regions of the Commonwealth…where the greatest potential for land-based wind power exists.”
Three of the eight bills presented were proposed by area legislators: Representative Demetrius Atsalis (D-Barnstable) proposed two bills (Bill H.1757, Bill H.1756) that would seek further regulation of offshore energy facilities, and prohibit siting wind turbines within 3,000 feet of a residence. Representative Timothy Madden (D-Nantucket) offered legislation (Bill H.2620) seeking authorization to exclude siting wind turbines within three miles of state waters. Offshore wind turbines, including the Cape Wind project, would not be affected.
The bills, under the heading of the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, were introduced in the three previous legislative sessions, and were defeated, by a single vote last year.
They would consolidate the permitting process for land-based turbines two or more megawatts in output in a single local board. On the Cape, such a board would represent what the state designates as a “significant wind resource area.”
Local boards would be established to handle wind turbine proposals as single entities instead of requiring developers to seek approvals from a gamut of local committees.
The rejection earlier this week by a subcommittee of the Cape Cod Commission of a project in Bourne to build four land-based wind turbines illustrated the legislation’s objective. The stated reason for the rejection was that the project did not meet a county standard that measures local benefit and demand, one of more than 200 minimum performance standards of the Commission.
The developers, who reduced the number of turbines from seven because neighbors objected, alleged that the subcommittee’s vote was inconsistent with the Commission’s own Regional Policy Plan for Barnstable County, which encourages use of renewable energy.
Local wind energy permitting boards, in the proposed legislation, would consist of at least one member of a local zoning board, the local conservation commission and the local planning board. The energy board would confer with other municipal boards as part of the process.
Proponents hope that expediting the application process will put more turbines onto the landscape.
Those appealing a local board decision could go directly to the state Energy Facilities Siting Board under the legislation.
Under the proposals, the state would identify communities that have significant wind resources. Those with lower wind velocities also could establish such boards.
Issues of local control have delayed the development of wind energy at both ends of the state. August 8 was the 10th anniversary of Cape Wind’s announcement of its plan to build the nation’s first offshore wind farm. After what was expected to be an 18-month review process before the project’s approval, it has become one of more than 122 months and still counting.
The Berkshire Wind Power Project, the state’s first land-based wind farm, opened last spring, and is producing enough electricity with 10 turbines to power about 6,000 homes. But it had been delayed since 1996, when a University of Massachusetts study described its site as “an excellent wind resource.”
Overall, the project was delayed by proposed anti-wind bylaws of nearby towns and lawsuits that prompted the state Executive Office of Energy & Environmental Affairs to intervene. It found after a lengthy study that the delays associated with local and state permitting processes imposed unreasonable costs for the project.
Testimony before the Committee throughout the hearing was divided. Opponents, primarily from the region, outnumbered proponents by a 5-1 margin. It repeated the Committee’s experience in the first hearing, and was not unexpected. Testifiers included: Barbara Kates-Garnick, Energy Undersecretary for that state agency. She was substituting for Executive Secretary Richard Sullivan, in Washington with Governor Patrick to accept a federal award as the most energy-efficient state in the country. She told the Committee that the state supports the legislation. “There is nothing in this bill that will permit a project to go forward without local support.
“We cannot afford to allow those who are fundamentally and physically opposed to wind energy per se to thwart the will of the great majority of residents,” she said.
In response to a question from Representative Sarah Peake (D-Provincetown), Steven Clarke, Assistant Secretary for Energy for the state, said, “It is very hard to estimate the number of land-based turbines that would be located on the Cape to meet our goal of 500 megawatts of wind power by 2020. But 25 percent of our objective will be onshore, the balance offshore.”
Peake emphasized in her remarks, which were echoed by Representative Cleon Turner (D-Dennis) that “many of my constituents are concerned about keeping our natural beauty and skyline.” Considerable applause greeted those remarks.
Asked by Representative Timothy Madden (D-Nantucket), where in the legislation are statements that the final word in siting decisions will be stated by municipalities, Clarke assured him that the legislation is committed to establish uniform standards, and that towns can develop their own standards if they prefer. “I hope,” said Madden, “that the effort to streamline the permitting process for developers suggests a trend.”
Ann Canedy, a Barnstable Town Councilor, told the Committee she was opposed to the legislation. “It’s personal. The town has not taken a position. But Barnstable doesn’t need your legislation. We have our own standards for wind turbines and solar. Your bills take only a wink and a nod at the problems,” she declared.
Bourne Town Administrator Thomas Guerino spoke for his Board of Selectmen, who he said are opposed to the proposed legislation. “These are not good bills as currently written,” he said.
Dave Duffy, an Orleans Selectman and immediate past president of the Cape Cod Selectmen’s Association, said that the state’s cities and towns need wind energy standards. “The bills address this, and they are welcome,” he said. “But as they are presently written, they are no improvement on our Orleans in place process.”
First in line to testify was Neil Andersen of Falmouth, who was recognized by Representative John Keenan (D-Salem), the Committee CoChair. Andersen and David Moriarty, also of Falmouth, cited the severe physical problems and medical concerns sustained by residents of the several neighborhoods nearest to the three turbines that have been built in their town. He condemned his town administration “for short-cutting the process for reviewing the standards. We’ve had no voice in these decisions,” he complained.
Senator Dan Wolf (D-Harwich) asked a representative of the Conservation Law Foundation, who testified, “Does this legislation in any way remove the authority of a local community to say, ‘No’?” The affirmative answer clearly did not reassure most of the people in the auditorium.
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