Most of Jamestown’s planning commissioners last week expressed tepid support for the Taylor Point wind turbine proposed by the Town Council. Their upcoming vote on a formal recommendation to the council is crucial for turbine supporters because a “no” vote would effectively end the turbine initiative. But the April 18 vote, assuming it’s a “yes,” will not be the final hurdle for the controversial proposal.
The Planning Commission met on April 4. Its review of the turbine proposal is required under Article 11 of the Zoning Ordinance, which directs the commission to perform a development plan review for every new land use or construction project proposed within Jamestown’s Special Development District.
Although none of the commissioners argued against the Taylor Point site, per se, Commissioner Rosemary Enright questioned the suitability of a 400-foot-high turbine within the island’s historic district. A number of commissioners raised a red flag over the area where the turbine’s interconnecting cable would emerge from Weeden Lane to join the North Main Road power lines.
The junction, which would include a transformer and other equipment, would stand near the 1786 Friends Meeting House. But, because the commission isn’t charged with reviewing visual impacts beyond the site of a project, there was a general consensus that the turbine proposal met the criteria applied by the commissioners in their review. The criteria include consistency with the Community Comprehensive Plan and a variety of potential impacts near the site of a new-use proposal.
But the consensus “doesn’t mean that we approve of the windmill,” said Commissioner Mike Smith. “It just means we can’t stand in the way of it. There’s no reason within our purview to deny [the proposal].”
However, neither does the consensus predict the fate of the project when it reaches the Zoning Board of Review, which will address the proposal on April 24 – assuming the commission votes “yes” on April 18. Zoning would have to grant a special-use permit, a height variance, and possibly a front-yard setback (which may or may not be necessary) for the proposal to return to the council, which will assess the financial viability of the turbine before placing the five-year initiative to a vote.
Town Administrator Bruce Keiser assured the commission that he – along with all town staff that was in attendance at the meeting – were impartial. But he also informed the commissioners that there wasn’t any other publicly owned site available for turbine siting that wouldn’t require a conservation easement. Consequently, Keiser said, “If you decide against the development plan, there are no other possibilities.”
During the commission’s lengthy review of the plan, several questions – such as the visibility of the turbine pad – didn’t elicit much discussion. But other eventualities, such as the impacts of a blade flying off in powerful winds, sparked some pointed questions.
Town Engineer Mike Gray told the commissioners that the treatment plant would probably go out of operation if the plant building were hit by a turbine blade. He added that, while he didn’t know the likelihood of such an occurrence, the turbine would have both manual and automatic shut-off options for emergency situations.
Town Planner Lisa Bryer pointed out that the plant building was “more than a blade-length away from the turbine,” and consultant Harley Lee noted that wind turbines are designed to withstand hurricanes. Keiser acknowledged that there was a “safety element” in the siting proposal, adding that “we are trying to isolate [the turbine] and set it back so there’s less potential threat to human safety.”
Keiser added that the turbine would be nearly 600 feet, or 1 1/2 times its tower height, from any public roads or residences. He also observed that the ratio aligns with the draft recommendations under consideration by Rhode Island’s Wind Energy Siting Guidelines Advisory Group.
Turbine noise was another impact discussed in some detail. Bryer said that the expected noise level of the spinning blades would be no more than 60 decibels at any property line, which complies with the town’s noise ordinance. By contrast, she added, the decibel limit for public districts is 75 decibels, whereas the noise on a busy street can reach 80 decibels.
Nor is the flicker from sunlight “strobing” through spinning blades expected to be a problem for any residential properties, Bryer said. She noted that vehicles traveling east at sunrise around mid-June may experience flicker for “two seconds” in the area of the Newport Bridge toll plaza, but added that the momentary flicker isn’t expected to affect safety any more than other distractions.
Regarding the turbine’s impact on property values, Bryer said that the only way to quantify the impacts, if any, would be to appraise nearby properties before and after the turbine was built. However, Lee said that he has “seen a lot of studies on this question and they’re pretty conclusive in finding that there aren’t any big changes in property values” after turbines are up and running.
Another potential, if less quantifi able, impact was raised by Enright, who said that previous project proposals have sparked reviews by the Rhode Island Historical
Preservation & Heritage Commission. She added that the turbine “impinges on the view from Windmill Hill,” and that its visual impact within a historic district would be “counterproductive.”
However, it wouldn’t be up to Jamestown to request a heritage commission review. Rather, it would be up to the Coastal Resources Management Council to issue the request – and their intentions are unknown.
Jamestown’s Comprehensive Community Plan includes the goal of protecting “the rural and historical village character of Jamestown,” but it’s silent on the subject of wind turbines. Bryer pointed out that the plan does discuss the goal of creating “public zones” such as Taylor Point. And, because the turbine would be a public facility in one of those zones, “it’s consistent with the comprehensive plan,” Bryer said.
But the goal of protecting historical assets would not be well served, the commissioners felt, by installing electrical equipment near the Meeting House – which, Enright pointed out, was listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Commissioner Duncan Pendlebury added that he has seen the electrical transition for Portsmouth’s municipal turbine, and that its “industrial” appearance would be inappropriate for the Meeting House site.
In one of her public comments to the commissioners, Town Councilor Ellen Winsor said she was “frustrated that we haven’t had a parallel, alternative-energy committee” to review other renewable and wind energy technologies. She warned that, by ignoring the potential benefits of those options and technologies, Jamestown will pay a price in “opportunity costs by rushing to build ‘green bling.’” Keiser responded by saying, among other things, that Jamestown doesn’t have the land mass to build a solar array providing nearly as much power as a 1.5- or 2-megawatt turbine.
Bryer and Town Solicitor Wyatt Brochu will prepare a draft of the commission’s findings, along with the motion for a recommendation, for the commission vote on Wednesday, April 18.