WESTERLY – Efforts to harness the wind to produce power in the town may hinge on whether turbines can be erected on land in the Town Forest.
Use of the Town Forest has the support of the Conservation Commission but town officials must also gain approval from the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management because the property is protected by a conservation easement. The town bought the land in 1990 with funds obtained through the DEM.
In a recent update to the Town Council, Councilor Christopher Duhamel said that plans to erect a wind turbine at a different location, the former landfill, fell through when the Federal Aviation Administration said a turbine would interfere with air traffic routes to Westerly State Airport.
The town’s Alternative Energy Committee had determined that the transfer station was the “most advantageous” site for a wind turbine. A consultant hired by the committee also considered six other town-owned sites. Councilor Caswell Cooke Jr. said all of the sites were found to be unsuitable because of flight patterns associated with the airport.
Officials then turned their consideration to the Town Forest off of Laurel Avenue.
Joseph MacAndrew, Conservation Commission chairman, said the commission has had several discussions with town councilors and the town manager about the possibility of erecting two turbines on a 1.5-acre section of the 204-acre town-owned forest. MacAndrew said the commission supports the concept but decided not to vote on the question until a study is done on the wind volume.
MacAndrew said commission members supported the idea “because it’s such a small percentage of the forest and there is no impact really.”
“Also the fact that it is green energy was huge. We think it is in keeping with the theme of the commission,” MacAndrew said.
In November, the Town Council gave Town Manager Steven Hartford authority to enter into an agreement with Wind Energy Development LLC of North Kingstown to develop a wind energy plan for the town. Plans call for the company to erect two wind turbines in the town and to provide energy that the town would use for its municipal buildings.
Duhamel said plans changed from the originally envisioned single wind turbine to two turbines because with two the company could provide power for all of the town’s municipal buildings. Wind Energy would also sell power from the turbines to National Grid. The company would likely feed the power into electrical transmission lines that run through a section of the Town Forest if the project moves forward, officials said.
Duhamel said about seven acres of the forest would be cleared to allow for an access road and staging areas when the turbines are erected. Most of the disturbed land could be returned to its undisturbed state, except for a 1.5-acre area where the turbines would be erected, Duhamel said.
After a recent meeting, DEM officials asked the town to study whether any privately owned land in the town was suitable for the turbines, Duhamel said. At the same time, Cooke said, DEM has agreed to study whether language in the deed for the Town Forest would allow the town to transfer a portion of the conservation easement to other town-owned property in return for being allowed to use the forest for turbines. Town officials said a section of the town-owned Bradford Preserve might be used for the transfer. Under such a transfer arrangement the town would agree to designate other town property as a permanent conservation area.
The conservation easement prohibits the construction of any structures on the Town Forest, Duhamel said, adding that language in the deed appears to allow for transfers of the conservation easement.
Duhamel called the Town Forest a “jewel in Westerly” and stressed that the wind turbines would not disturb most of it.
“Having long-term sustainable energy at a reasonable cost that keeps our tax base down should be explored,” Duhamel said
Cooke, who attended the meeting with DEM officials, including DEM Director Janet Coit, said the Town Forest might be the town’s last hope for wind energy. Based on the meeting, Cooke said he believed DEM was receptive to at least considering the town’s proposal.
“I think the door is open. If the door is closed, unfortunately, I’m not sure where we go next for wind in Westerly,” Cooke said.
Gail Mastrati, DEM spokeswoman said, “The director met with town officials and had a good discussion. Among the topics covered were the restrictions and issues regarding any new developments on conservation lands. It is our understanding that the town is still evaluating all options for the best sites for a proposed wind turbine.”
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