SHELBURNE FALLS – Now that plans for a commercial wind farm for Mount Massaemet have been taken off the table, what’s next for Shelburne and for Mount Massaemet Windfarm Inc.?
On Thursday night, at a Zoning Board of Appeals public hearing, Frederick D. Field withdrew his controversial proposal to site eight windmills on his land and on several farms within the Patten District of Shelburne Center.
The withdrawal stopped what many believed would have been a long process of hearings, and now allows the town time to craft a special wind farm bylaw to closely regulate such proposals in detail in the future – whether by Field or someone else.
The withdrawal announcement drew applause from the people who had stayed until the end of a three-hour public hearing Wednesday. At least 250 people had signed the hearing attendance sheet, according to the town clerk.
Then, without further discussion, the ZBA unanimously accepted the withdrawal “without prejudice,” which means that Field could return at any time to apply for a special permit for another proposal.
“We’ll be back,” he added.
Immediately after the hearing, Field said he had withdrawn the proposal because it lacked the detail that town boards wanted, as they struggled to consider his plan in the absence of specific local bylaws governing such installations.
On Friday, when asked what’s next for him, Field said he doesn’t know yet. “We don’t know what our options are, or will be. I”m going to talk with the other (landowners) and see what we can do.”
When asked if he plans to come back with another proposal, he replied, “It’s too early to say.”
Over and over, various town boards and some of the public had cited the needs for blueprints and studies that would shed light on such concerns as wetlands impact, how the turbines might affect a nearby communications tower, and studies on road modifications and traffic as the large turbine components were brought up to the ridge for installation.
Before the plan had been withdrawn, the ZBA wanted Field to have the land for the wind turbine project surveyed, to show exactly where the turbines would be and whether each had enough frontage to meet town bylaw requirements. Mount Massaemet has a two-mile-long ridge, and the 600 acres to be used for the project are owned by five families, including the Fields. Field was told he may need to get Planning Board approval for a subdivision before coming to the ZBA for a special permit, because zoning bylaws stipulate on structure per lot.
ZBA member Theodore Merrill questioned whether a wind facility of this magnitude constituted an industrial use, which he said could not be sited with a special permit on farmland zoned “rural residential/agricultural,” which allows for “commercial electric generating facilities>”
He also questioned whether the project had the right to use “30 or more acres” of land under agricultural preservation restrictions for the project.
Merrill said whatever decision it made could end up being appealed in Land Court, and that the best way to avoid expensive litigation might be through changing the town zoning bylaws.
“The route to that action isn’t through the ZBA but through other boards, ultimately ending with a town meeting vote,” said Merrill. “I believe this question should lie directly before the people.”
In September, the town’s Planning Board began discussing whether Shelburne should develop a wind turbine siting bylaw that might be included among other zoning bylaw revisions to be proposed at annual town meeting in May.
During the ZBA hearing, Merrill told Field that engineering drawings should have been submitted along with the application. “I would like to know how long we keep open the submission time for this applicant,” he added. “Is the industrial application,” as he call the wind farm, “appropriate for this board?”
ZBA members Lowell LaPorte and John Taylor wanted to know how the town would define the difference between “industrial” and “commercial” energy generation, and thought the issue should be explored.
Engineer Mark Donohoe of Acton, who represented Field, pointed out there were only about half-a-dozen really good inland sites for wind farms in the state, and that Mount Massaemet was one of them. “I’d say some day there will be some kind of wind facility at that site,” he predicted.
Field said the wind was measured over a year and over 200,000 indicators of wind were recorded. ZBA members asked if they could see the results of the wind studies.
In describing the turbine height, Donohoe now said they would be “under 500 feet tall,” including the blade at its height. He said the turbines would be about 480 feet, with some variation depending upon which make of equipment was installed. (At earlier meetings, the height was to have been 469 feet.)
The ZBA also wanted to know how the project would benefit the town. Assessors’ Chairman Joseph Mattei said the board met twice with Field, who estimated potential revenues that would be generated for the town on a “payment in lieu of taxes” (PILOT) basis. But Mattei declined to say hoe much that revenue would be. He said the board is trying to get revenue figures from other towns where turbines are based.
During the public comment portion of the hearing, several Shelburne residents living in Shelburne Center voiced concerns about the potential effects that the turbines could have on property values. Michael Parry on Patten Road worried how the turbines would affect his 220-acre farm. “My wife and I have no interest in being guinea pigs for a health experiment,” he said.
Norman Davenport, one of the landowners involved with the project, urged residents to keep an open mind. He said he had signed an agreement giving Field up to two years to study wind conditions on his land. “our desire is to have a conversation, with the pros and cons (of windpower),” he said. “Research, at this point, has been done at a minimum cost, without investor funding.”
Davenport stressed that he was speaking as a private citizen and had recused himself from his role on the Conservation Commission because of the conflict of interest.