Facing one of the most contentious issues in recent memory, the Franklin Regional Planning Board has called on the state to study the effects of windmills before proceeding with new laws that would determine who controls windmills and wind farms, and how.
The board, which unanimously approved letters Thursday to legislators and to Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Richard K. Sullivan, had considered five different drafts of those letters among its executive committee and at an Oct. 27 meeting of the full board.
Thursday’s action marked the second time the regional board voiced concerns about the state’s proposed Wind Energy Siting Reform Act. The first time, in July 2009, it cautioned that the fast-track siting bill then under consideration would “significantly restrict Massachusetts communities’ home rule authority by consolidating and expediting permitting.”
That legislation, first proposed by the Patrick administration, was revised and re-introduced this year, with public hearings held in Berkshire County and Cape Cod. The Legislature’s Telecommunications, Utility and Energy Committee has until March to take action on the measure, with final approval needed by December 2012, according to an aide for Sen. Benjamin Downing, D-Pittsfield.
The draft letter, to be sent to bill sponsor Sen. Barry R. Finegold, D-Andover, as well as area legislators, says that the regulations and standards that would govern the proposed siting process “are an integral part of the legislation and will govern how great an impact these facilities will have on natural and cultural resources and public health and safety.”
It adds, “These standards and regulations should be made available for public review and comment prior to passage.”
The letter also points to “one of the most problematic sections,” raising concerns about the loss of local control that would be caused by the proposed law.
For example, it would allow for creation of a permitting board that could override local zoning and other bylaws adopted by a two-thirds majority town meeting vote. Such a local board “should not have the ability to broadly overturn bylaws or other regulations adopted by town meeting or other local boards” – especially if the parameters for overruling those local rules are not clearly defined.
The board also emphasized, “Only wind facilities that are approved by a municipality, with or without conditions, should be eligible to proceed with the state’s wind energy siting board,” and that the 120-day time-frame for a municipality to render a written decision is unrealistic for rural communities that may lack professional staff.
Planning Director Margaret Sloan said there was consensus among members at the board’s last meeting that the state should commission the same kind of in-depth study it did last year on biomass. That study helped clarify whether a sustainable supply exists for wood-burning plants and whether they constitute the carbon-neutral energy source that conforms with the state policy to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “There’s a lot of information out there, but it’s in pieces everywhere,” she said. “So if you’re a local official looking at a wind energy proposal that’s coming before you, you’re trying to evaluate the information being put before you by abutters, or the wind development companies about how reliable the energy is and what the impacts are.”
The comprehensive study of benefits and impacts of land-based, commercial-scale wind projects that the board requested from Energy and Environmental Secretary Sullivan would evaluate the most recent research done in Europe and other parts of the country, the letter said. It could be done in six months to guide the standards and regulations related to setback requirements, noise and height limits, wildlife studies, decommissioning” and other issues to protect public health and safety as well as natural and cultural resources.
The range and complexity of issues, as well as the strong feelings they spark, made it more of a challenge preparing the two letters, Sloan told the board.
“These comments were very difficult to prepare because there’s a lot of differing viewpoints on wind,” she said. “Some folks really view wind as an essential part of our clean energy future and really necessary to reduce our dependence on fossil fuels and greenhouse gas emissions; other folks feel that impacts on habitat, wildlife, scenic-historic resources, public welfare outweigh the environmental benefits of wind because it may only generate a small portion of our electricity needs. Other folks are very concerned about the economics, that it may be very expensive compared to more traditional forms of electric generation. I think on this planning board, we probably have all those different viewpoints.”
In fact, when board member Charles Olchowski of Greenfield suggested that energy conservation should be considered as a better way of helping the state meet its goals for electricity generation and reducing greenhouse gas emissions, other members rejected that idea.
“This is a focused study,” said Warwick member Edwin ‘Ted’ Cady.
The letter to Sullivan also enumerated 16 “typical questions” that a study could try to address, some of which some members thought “speak to people’s fears” and “don’t shape what a study should include.”
But others, like Shelburne member Charles Washer looked at the questions – including “What are the health impacts of wind facilities as a result of the flicker effect, noise, etc.?” and “What is the impact of wind facilities on residential property values?” – and said it did a good job summarizing the reactions to a wind proposal in his town.
“These are the questions that seemed to come up again and again,” Sloan said, “where a local volunteer board is trying to process a special permit application. It was intended for the folks in Boston to understand that these are some of the types of questions … that are being raised. And to the extent that they can be addressed by the study, it would be very helpful for municipal officials.”
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