SHELBURNE – A developer hoping to build eight wind turbines atop Mt. Massamet, an iconic landscape feature near the tourist village of Shelburne Falls, has folded his cards and walked away from the table – at least for now.
Near the end of a contentious public hearing before the Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) on Thursday night, Frederick “Don” Field, a principal of Mount Massamaet Windfarm Inc., suddenly announced that he and his team were withdrawing their application for a special permit to build the $40 million, 20 megawatt facility.
“Instead of continuing and wasting peoples’ time, we will withdraw the application without prejudice,” said Field. His announcement prompted whoops and cheers from the audience, dozens of whom had spoken against the project.
The ZBA unanimously accepted the withdrawal with the provision that Field may resubmit his application at a later date.
The five-member ZBA sat on the left side of the stage at Memorial Hall with town counsel Donna MacNicol; Field sat on the right with his son John and Mark Donahoe, an engineer with Acton Survey and Engineering. Field, a Littleton resident and Shelburne native, said he and his son had developed subdivisions in the eastern part of the state, but that this was their first renewable energy project.
The ZBA’s purview is to determine whether the project can be approved under the town’s zoning bylaw, which allows “commercial electric generating facilities” by special permit. Shelburne doesn’t have a specific wind-power siting bylaw.
Although many people stepped to the microphone to voice concerns Thursday night, the merits of the project received little discussion, because Field had apparently submitted no engineering reports or detailed site plans with his permit application. Such submissions are required.
“We do not want to expend the cost of preparing drawings that would cost hundreds of thousands of dollars without knowing that we will get a special permit,” Donahoe told the board, a statement that elicited a roar of laughter from the crowd.
“We seem to have a chicken and egg problem here,” responded ZBA Chairman Joseph Palmieri. “We should make it clear to you that we don’t issue a special permit until we have all those things.”
ZBA member Ted Merrill said the board could not make a decision based upon what he called a “grossly inadequate” permit application.
Northampton lawyer Thomas Lesser, addressing the ZBA on behalf of project opponents, said Massamaet’s application should be denied because it is incomplete: containing no construction diagrams, no surveyed site plan, no approved subdivision plan from the Planning Board, no determination from the Conservation Commission, and no written agreement with the owners of the proposed site.
“We don’t have a real application here,” he said. “If you don’t want to be in land court, you’d better deny it quickly because this is a disaster waiting to happen.”
Lesser said the ZBA could spend “thousands of hours of peoples’ time” by holding hearings every other week, waiting for Field to come up with detailed specifications, or it could quickly deny the permit without prejudice, which would allow the applicant to come back at a later date.
“We’re just talking about a hypothetical,” said Lesser. “How can we talk about noise when you can’t tell us what blades you’re going to use? How can we evaluate impacts when you can’t even tell us where the road is going to go?”
Kevin Delaney of Industrial Communications, a third-party consultant for Northeast Utilities and AT&T Wireless – both of which have transmitters on a tower on the mountain – told the ZBA that wind turbines can interfere with microwave point-to-point links such as those used by his clients, and called for an evaluation of those potential impacts.
And Mass. Audubon, an abutter, has requested a study evaluating various environmental impacts of the wind project.
Field told Northampton Media that he has not lined up investors, and that he has “not a lot” of pre-development capital to work with. He said he had met with a state official about the project, but could not recall that person’s name or office.
Last week, Field told the Planning Board that he couldn’t give them information about noise impacts from the blades until after the project was built. That body reserved the right to weigh in on the project when Field produces better information.
And as of Thursday night, the Conservation Commission was still waiting for Field to file a Notice of Intent, which would spur evaluation under the Commonwealth’s wetlands law.
The outlines of the project show eight 2.5 megawatt turbines on 600 acres of land owned by the Gould, Davenport, and Dole families. Preliminary drawings show structures that would be 469 feet tall from the tip of the blade to the ground. The wind farm would abut the Shelburne High Ledges, a popular hiking destination and wildlife refuge owned by Mass. Audubon, and be clearly visible from the village of Shelburne Falls.
“I may be back,” said Field on his way out the door, “after I get my ducks in a row.”