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Turbine bylaws in question

As Heath and Shelburne consider moratoriums on wind turbine proposals – to give their planning boards time to develop wind turbine regulations – some in Shelburne wonder whether they need a wind turbine bylaw at all.

Could it just rely on the town’s special permit process, and an existing zoning bylaw that requires a special permit variance for structures above 35 feet tall?

Also, could a community ban large commercial-scale wind turbine facilities from its borders altogether?

“They’ve done it for heights of buildings,” says Tom Philbun, legislative analyst for the Massachusetts Municipal Association. “I’m not a legal counsel, but I don’t see why not. I’m sure it would go to court, and the courts would rule on that. There would probably be a lawsuit, at some point, and possibly an appeal. The courts are always there for the appeal of any law passed.”

The Massachusetts Attorney General’s Office suggested that question could best be answered by the state Department of Energy Resources, and the DOER suggested asking Philbun of the MMA.

Some communities have gotten around the issue by approving town ordinances that restrict height and noise to thresholds below those of utility-scale turbines.

The coastal, Maine, town of Brooksville, with a population of just under 1,000 people, effectively banned commercial-scale wind by passing a bylaw in November that restricts wind-turbine height to 100 feet, according to the Bangor Daily News. The height restriction essentially prohibits the 250- to 300-foot-tall towers used in large scale developments. Also, the prohibition from generating more than 35 decibels of sound is more stringent than the state’s proposal, of allowing up to a 42 decibel sound standard.

“Brooksville is one of quite a few communities that have passed this kind of ordinance,” says Bangor Daily reporter Kevin Miller. He said a few towns have also put moratoriums on wind development into place while considering wind bylaws.

On the other hand, he says, residents in some towns, like Clifton, Maine, have rejected attempts to impose a moratorium on wind power, while Oakfield, Maine, residents have voted to approve large projects because of the tax revenues.

In 2005, Hawley was the first Franklin County town to adopt a wind turbine bylaw – saying the turbine height should be less than 200-feet tall, a height that could allow installation of a smaller turbine for residential or agricultural uses.

Earl Pope, Hawley’s former Planning Board chairman at the time the bylaw was passed, said the height limit wasn’t intended to prohibit large-scale wind projects, but to require them to go through a special permit/public hearing process through the Zoning Board of Appeals. “You would have to go before the ZBAand give your neighbors a chance to respond, ” he explained.

In a telephone interview this week, state Department of Renewable Energy Resources Commissioner Mark Sylvia made the case for the need to develop renewable energy resources and the help available to communities from the Green Communities division.

He said natural gas is “the largest source of fuel in Massachusetts, ” and is brought in from out of state.

“We spend $22billion a year on energy, and $18 billion goes ‘Outside of Massachusetts,” he said.

“The reason why we’re focussed on renewable energy is because we’re importing all our fossil fuels from outside the state. Massachusetts is at the end of the pipeline.”

Silvia says the state’s current wind turbines can produce up to 44 megawatts of electricity, and that enough turbines to generate an additional 91megawatts are “in the pipeline” – and are either being constructed or are planned for construction.

“These 135 megawatts of wind power will power the equivalent of 41,062 homes annually,” he said.

The existing turbines include: two 1.65MW turbines at the North Central Correctional Institution and two 270-foot-tall turbines at Mount Wachusett Community College – which generates 97 percent of the college’s electricity.

Silvia said the state has a clean-energy and climate plan to reduce its greenhouse gases by 25 percent by the year 2020.

He said energy generated by wind turbines and solar photovoltaic technology is “very clean and doesn’t rely on fossil fuels. We need to diversify our fuel sources,” he said.

In terms of energy efficiency, Silvia said, Massachusetts is No. 1 in the nation – surpassing California this year, he said. “The cheapest fuel is that fuel we don’t use,” he said.

Help for towns looking to create wind turbine bylaws, he said is available from the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs.

On that department’s website are two model bylaws: “the conditional use model zoning bylaw” for siting large or utility-scale or commercial facilities; and an “as-of-right wind model zoning bylaw.”

According to the state, 36 Massachusetts towns or cities have wind bylaws; however, most are coastal towns, and Hawley is not included in that list.

Silvia also pointed out that any community seeking help with wind turbine bylaw research can use resources available through the Green Communities program.