After several hours of sometimes contentious discussion, the first night of the Fall Town Meeting ended without a vote on Article 9, which would suspend operation of Falmouth’s controversial wind turbines.
The Falmouth Fall Town Meeting opened on Monday night in the Memorial Auditorium of the Lawrence School. Chairman of the Board of Selectmen Mary Pat Flynn began the session by thanking Acting Town Manager Heather Harper for her service, and introducing new Town Manager Julian Suso.
“Heather made important and sometimes very painful decisions” in order to stabilize Falmouth’s fiscal situation, Flynn said, praising Harper’s “conservative approach to managing the budget.”
Flynn thanked Harper, and extended “our admiration and gratitude for a job well done.”
After a standing ovation from Town Meeting members and spectators, Harper said, “It’s been my honor and privilege to serve you in the past year.”
A report by Vice Chairman of the Planning Board Patricia Kerfoot hinted at one of the more controversial issues to be discussed at the Fall Town Meeting: Falmouth’s ongoing struggle with wind energy. Kerfoot said the Planning Board is still hard at work gathering information which will eventually be used to craft a new zoning bylaw dealing specifically with wind turbines, which have already been accused of causing health problems for nearby residents.
Kerfoot thanked Town Meeting members for voting to place a one-year moratorium on future turbines at the Spring Town Meeting in April, and said the Planning Board would likely request an extension of that construction freeze next spring.
As Chairman of the Planning Board Ralph Herbst pointed out later, Falmouth’s current bylaw concerning wind turbines is so out-of-date that it refers to the structures as windmills. However, the eventual new bylaw, and the moratorium preceding it, will cover only future turbine construction. Falmouth is currently operating Wind 1, and soon-to-be-online Wind 2, will have to be dealt with separately.
Possibly the most controversial proposal on the warrant, Article 9, would suspend operation of both turbines at least until the Spring Town Meeting, when the issue would be taken up again. Though the session ended without a vote on Article 9, residents and town officials did engage in several hours of emotionally charged discussion.
Several residents who live near Wind 1 spoke about the mental and physical symptoms they say have accompanied the turbine’s operation. Terri Drummey read an email from her son’s teacher which referred to changes in behavior due to loss of sleep and stress. Neil Anderson read a letter from his wife’s doctor detailing the vertigo, depression, and tinnitus—a persistent ringing in the ears—of which she has complained since Wind 1 went into operation.
Flynn told Town Meeting members, “We all know that this is a problem that has to be resolved,” but urged them to vote against the article. She cited the town’s curtailment of Wind 1 during periods of high wind, and the study of further possible actions which is currently underway, as evidence of the town’s continuing attempts to address residents’ concerns.
However, the town made no secret of the fact that its primary reasons for continuing to operate Wind 1, and continuing to prepare Wind 2 for operation, are financial. Assistant Wastewater Manager Amy Lowell spelled out the dire economic consequences which would accompany long-term or permanent shutdown of the turbines.
Lowell said that with both turbines operating at full capacity, the town could expect to generate approximately $975,000 annually. If both were shut down, not only would all such revenue disappear, but the town would still be liable for millions of dollars spent on the turbines’ construction and maintenance.
Lowell said the town still carries approximately $5 million in debt from the construction of Wind 1. Wind 2 cost the same amount to build, but was funded entirely by a government grant. Under the terms of that grant, however, if the turbine were not used to generate clean energy, the entire amount would be converted from a grant to a loan, making Falmouth liable for another $5 million of debt. In addition, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center paid the town upfront for energy expected to be produced in coming years. That $1 million would also have to be refunded, making a total of $11 million the town would owe as a result of its experiment in wind energy.
Chairman of the Finance Committee Gary Anderson called that a “substantial and unbudgeted financial loss,” and joined the Board of Selectmen in recommending against it.
The session was suspended before a vote could be taken on Article 9, but the proposal will likely be the first issue discussed when Town Meeting reconvenes at 7pm tonight.