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Fairhaven needs answers before turbines are built

If opponents of the two industrial wind turbines being constructed in Fairhaven have followed all the rules, they will succeed in forcing a special Town Meeting vote on the project, perhaps in February. We hope such an election can take place, because there has been little to demonstrate what the deliberative body feels about a wind project initially approved by a vote of 141-98 almost five years ago.

The democratic process isn’t limited to Town Meeting, however, and based on an editorial board meeting last week with four Fairhaven residents, there is reason to wonder whether democracy in the town is being threatened by town leaders acting independent of public discussion or review.

It’s no secret that those opposing the construction of two 400-foot turbines on town-owned land off Arsene Street are at odds with town officials. The details of the source of their displeasure raise legitimate, vital questions about the responsiveness of government in Fairhaven.

Government leadership is losing credibility among the electorate, as the suggestion of a lack of transparency and threats to democratic process have prompted a successful petition drive to make it easier to recall elected officials and to impose term limits.

In previous editorials, we have argued for patience on behalf of project opponents, as the town’s exposure to a lawsuit appeared to be too high to unilaterally stop the project. We argued that, with the backing of better science and study, the town would find itself on firmer legal ground to withstand whatever suit might come from the project owner.

Today, however, it’s clear that damage to the town is already piling up. The growing lack of trust and confidence between the electorate and the elected could quickly prove to be disastrous for Fairhaven.

The town has organized a forum for the end of the month intended to inform. Windwise questions how impartial the forum will be. They have thus far not been allowed to sign on as presenters. Nor have they been allowed on the agendas of such bodies as the Board of Selectmen, Board of Health or School Committee, despite numerous requests.

The Standard-Times doesn’t have the resources or expertise to quickly assess the reams of data on health effects of large wind turbines, but we do look forward to a state report promised on the subject. Windwise, again, is dubious about the impartiality of a report being prepared by the government of Massachusetts, whose governor is committed to an aggressive expansion of renewable power generation. We hear their concerns. The subject is new, the data – though growing – is sparse.

For these reasons, it seems the most prudent course of action would be for Fairhaven selectmen to halt the construction on the project until it can be reasonably determined at what distance from homes, schools and businesses turbines of that size can operate safely.

No matter what is done today or tomorrow or next month or next year, there probably will be lawsuits, either by the builder because the town or the state shuts down their project; by townspeople whose health has been affected by the successful construction of the turbines; by the manufacturer against the builder … we can’t see into that crystal ball very clearly, but the pieces are in place: Someone will be seeking compensation for damages.

But we return to the most important issue, that of the proper role and effectiveness of government.

We find the arguments of Windwise particularly compelling when they discuss the lack of responsiveness to their reasonable requests for answers.

Why do two reports on ambient sound differ in their conclusions despite using the same data? Why did an Oct. 17 email sent by the president of Palmer Capital Corp. to Selectman Brian Bowcock’s secretary (obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request by Windwise) discuss Executive Secretary Jeffrey Osuch’s efforts to “help with keeping a low profile on this project”? Why is the project moving with such alarming speed? Why are there apparent incongruities with the timing of the permit process? Why were other proposals not sought from other bidders as is required for most municipal projects? Why have people been turned away from advertised public meetings?

We would like to hear the answers from town officials and the developer, but we are convinced that the answers to at least some of these questions belong with Attorney General Martha Coakley, and we urge her office to get to the bottom of them with all due speed.