SHELBURNE – With a hearing for a wind farm on Mount Massaemet still three weeks away, some town officials who would normally participate in the permit process are backing away – especially those with relatives whose land either abuts, or might be leased to, the estimated $40 million development.
Several volunteer town officials have expressed concerns about potential conflicts of interest, enough to prompt the town’s lawyer and selectmen to step in this week.
Town Counsel Donna MacNicol advised selectmen Monday night to find out who the “principal players” are in the windmill proposal, before trying to determine whether a board member has a conflict of interest.
The wind farm proposal put forth by Frederick D. Field, a Shelburne native and landowner, would place eight 2.5-megawatt turbines across leased farmland belonging to several families in this town of about 2,000.
So far, two out of five Planning Board members, Christopher Davenport and Beth Simmonds, have read disclosures “of the appearance of a conflict of interest,” because of family ties to abutters of some of the landowners involved. Both said they were advised by the state Ethics Commission to make the disclosures, but that they were legally able to review the wind turbine proposal and participate in their board’s discussion.
A third Planning Board member – Charles Washer, the brother-in-law of one of the landowners – has recused himself from participating in the discussions and recommendations that the Planning Board will make.
The Planning Board is just one of three town boards currently reviewing the turbine proposal, and scheduled to make recommendations to the ZBA, which will ultimately decide whether to grant the permit. But two more town officials, ZBA Chairman Joseph Palmeri and Conservation Commissioner Alan Smith were on the selectmen’s meeting agenda, to discuss conflict-of-interest questions. However, Palmeri was not present, so the board tabled discussion until the next selectmen’s meeting, on Nov. 7.
Palmeri, an electrician, and Smith could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
MacNicol was present to discuss another matter with the board, but she was asked to help them resolve the conflict questions.
“The work that Donna is doing is to figure out who all the (town) officials are who might have conflicts,” said selectmen’s Chairman John Payne. “Ethics laws are quite clear and need to be applied consistently. The penalty for failing to comply is $10,000, which is a serious number.”
“The (Board of Selectmen) doesn’t have an issue with the wind farm one way or another,” Payne continued, “But we do want to protect our town officials, who are volunteers and who unknowingly or unwittingly may expose themselves to ethics violations.”
Payne said several board members have already contacted the state Ethics Commission with conflict-of-interest questions, but have gotten slightly different responses. “We feel we needed to have a consistent approach,” said Payne. “That’s why Donna’s involved. I hope that we have the answers by our next board meeting” on Nov. 7.
According to the state conflict of interest law, town officials (public municipal employees) cannot deliberate or vote on issues in which they have a financial interest or in which their immediate family has a financial interest. “Immediate family” includes the board member’s parents, spouse, children, brothers and sisters, along with the spouse’s parents, brothers and sisters.
If the conflict-of-interest has no financial bearing on the board member, he or she may be able to deliberate, providing he or she files a disclosure of the appearance of conflict of interest. For instance, if a family member were an abutter.
The wind farm is to be sited on at least 600 acres near the summit. That land is owned by two Davenport families, and the Gould, Field and Dole families. The proposal said the landowners “will retain ownership” and will “lease the turbine sites and areas necessary for other infrastructure to Mount Massamet Windfarm Inc.”
Besides the roughly 30 acres to hold the turbines, access to the site, and then to the turbines will be through private land. That land, near Patten Hill, some state forest land, and the Audubon Society’s High Ledges, was cleared farmland about 100 years ago that has since grown in. According to the turbine proposal, the land needed for continued access to the turbines would remain open pastures. The turbine towers will be 328 feet high, with three-blade rotors of 282 feet in diameter. They are to be spaced about three rotor-widths apart on about 30 acres.