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Farmington’s new wind rules to be tested

FARMINGTON – Debbie Huddleston and her husband bought their home 15 years ago because the site was quiet and had picturesque views of farmland off Bailey Hill Road.

When they learned recently about a neighbor’s plan to have wind turbines built on the farmland, the couple feared their peaceful existence and property value would suffer.

With the passage last week of a town ordinance regulating wind energy projects, the couple is anxiously waiting to see if the new rules will be strict enough to address their concerns.

The proposal to build at least two commercial wind turbines on Bailey Hill Farm property is expected to be the first test for the local ordinance, which adds local rules for turbine noise, setbacks and other wind-energy issues.

Questions raised by the Huddlestons and other residents, however, have already prompted a town official to consider looking at amending the ordinance to address potential problems before wind energy projects start filing applications.

Huddleston, 55, and her husband, Tom, are worried the rules fall short of protecting them from turbine noise and negative effects on her view. She said these problems could mean any chance to sell their Davis Road home would also disappear.

“I would have never bought this house if I knew this (project) was going in across the street,” she said.

Konrad Bailey, who owns the farmland where the turbines would be built, said this week he plans to work with the Huddlestons and other neighbors to address their concerns before moving forward with the project.

“It’s not in my best interest to be enemies with my neighbors,” he said.

Clayton King Jr., chairman of the town planning board behind the new ordinance, on Friday said he will look into concerns raised by the Huddlestons and other town residents about the rules adopted Monday.

King noted the planning board spent more than 18 months working on the ordinance, making its decisions based on the information available at the time. He said rapidly evolving studies about wind turbines’ safety standards have changed in recent months, forcing the planning board to play catch up.

“I can foresee us making some changes and tweaking the ordinance in the near future,” King said.

Voters would probably be asked to approve any ordinance amendments at a special town meeting, he said.

Meanwhile, because voters overwhelming approved the ordinance Monday at the annual Town Meeting, the town at least has more protection against problems tied to wind energy projects than it did before, King said.

He said passing the ordinance was prudent, giving the community a tool to better control the issues tied to wind energy projects. Without an ordinance, the town’s only protection is a site review ordinance that is effective but doesn’t deal with the unique factors involved in wind turbine development, he said.

Wind energy projects have to meet some state guidelines, but passing a local ordinance gives a community more control. Many Maine communities have enacted their own ordinances in recent years.

What a town is willing to accept

The Huddlestons are not the only ones watching how the new rules may affect the Bailey Hill Farm wind project, which is being proposed by the wind energy company Aeronautica Windpower, based in Plymouth, Mass.

A town resident and an official from another nearby Franklin County community believe there are shortcomings in Farmington’s ordinance. Their biggest problem with the ordinance is the 60 decibels of turbine noise that is acceptable at neighbors’ property lines, which is higher than the local ordinance standards enacted by many other communities. The 60-decibel level is considered the level of normal conversation and often accepted as the standard in many in many noise ordinance debates. For instance, Augusta recently accepted that as the level at which car dealers’ loudspeakers could be heard at the border of their property.

Resident Burt Knapp, 64, addressed Farmington voters before the town meeting Monday, calling on them to defeat the ordinance and fast track another version with stricter rules about turbine noise.

Knapp, a physician, who has a family medical practice and lives on Porter Hill Farm, in a phone interview Thursday described the turbine noise allowed by the ordinance as irresponsible. He added that he believes it creates a health risk because people’s sleep and daily routines can be disrupted.

Knapp is planning to start a petition to ask town officials to amend the ordinance. He also is looking into petitioning to pursue a separate ordinance to control all industrial noise in the community, he said.

Dain Trafton, a town planning board member in Phillips, helped draft a wind ordinance for his community that passed in 2010. In a phone interview this week, he called the level of turbine noise allowed by the Farmington rules extraordinarily high compared to his and other communities’ local ordinance standards.

Phillips voters overwhelmingly supported the local rules that allow 30 decibels of turbine noise at neighbors’ property line, he said. He added the rules were written after town officials consulted with Robert Rand, an acoustic expert with Rand Acoustics in Brunswick.

Several planning board members in Farmington, including King, have said wind ordinances with 30-decibel noise limits were written to discourage nearly all wind energy projects.

The Farmington board did not have a study conducted by an acoustic expert like Phillips, but King on Friday said his board consulted with industry experts to guide their ordinance.

In general, the board wanted to avoid passing rules so stringent they make it impossible to develop wind energy projects, King said.

Trafton, 73, conceded that Phillips’ ordinance basically prohibits commercial wind turbines, which can reach more than 450 feet tall. He also noted that wind energy technology continues to improve, leaving room for them to meet the standards in the future.

Trafton said he wanted to protect the quiet rural qualities of the town, adding the issue for him boils down to the “level of noise that a town is willing to accept.”

Keeping the farm running

The idea to build wind turbines off Bailey Hill Road gained steam after the family farm started struggling in 2007, Bailey said.

Bailey, 50, and his wife raised their two children on the farm, which has been in the family for generations and is on a lot adjacent to the proposed site for the wind turbines, he said.

Bailey owns 400 acres in the area and couldn’t sustain his dairy farm without making some changes, he said. The farm started producing hay, selling wood and took on other business ventures to stay afloat.

He described the wind turbines as another way to help diversify and keep running the farm – another asset. The wind project has progressed slowly and kept neighbors and town officials in the loop since the beginning, Bailey said.

The company behind the project is still in the planning stages and has been doing studies to follow the regulations in the town’s new wind ordinance, Bailey said. He added his plan is to follow those local rules and talk to town officials and residents about their concerns before deciding to proceed.

“It’s not in anybody’s interest to cram this down peoples’ throats,” Bailey said.

The company presented its initial plan during a public meeting last year, calling for four 750-kilowatt wind turbines. The mid-sized commercial wind turbines are 298-foot-tall structures, to the highest point of the turbine blade.

The proposal has since been cut down to two wind turbines, with further studies needed before returning to the town to make an updated proposal, according to Matt Damon, a company spokesman.

The company expects to be ready to pursue permitting some time this summer, he said.

Damon noted that any proposal would meet the noise guidelines in the town ordinance as well as the company’s internal regulations, which are stricter when it comes to turbine noise.

“We want to make sure that what we put in couldn’t be heard because we want to protect our reputation,” he said.