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Somerset wind farm debate continues; County considers safety of turbines

CRISFIELD – Plans to install wind turbines on Somerset County farmland has residents and elected officials divided about whether they create health and safety issues or nothing more than clean energy.

On one side, proponents point to studies by the state of Massachusetts, the Sierra Club and the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory at the University of California that say wind-energy systems do not cause health problems.

Meanwhile, opponents – including a group in Marion Station – point to other studies and reports from people living near turbines that say they can cause migraine headaches, insomnia, seizures and other problems.

“These should not be in anybody’s backyard,” said Tammy Truitt, whose Marion Station home abuts farmland that is under contract with a wind developer.

The issue of safety is one reason the Somerset County Commissioners have delayed a vote on a proposed ordinance that would regulate the installation of wind turbines.

After Truitt and some of her neighbors testified against the ordinance at a Feb. 28 public hearing, County Commissioners have read studies and also went to visit a wind farm in Sheldon, N.Y.

Rex Simpkins, president of the Commissioners, said they arrived unannounced in Sheldon and went door to door through the town seeking information and opinions of the turbines.

“We never heard any negative feedback at all,” he said.

Although there was some objection before the farm was built, residents said there had been no negative effects from it once it was operating.

Commissioners, along with Crisfield Mayor Percy Purnell and City Council members, also visited a turbine at the University of Delaware property in Lewes and heard similar reports there.

However, officials are still weighing the pros and cons, and Simpkins said there is another study by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology that will be released in May.

“The Commissioners certainly aren’t going to rush to judgment on this,” he said.

Prime location

With its abundance of farmland and proximity to the water, Somerset County and much of the Eastern Shore is considered prime real estate for wind installations.

Two wind-energy developers are working with private land owners in the county including Pioneer Green, which has more than 50 signed leases for about 10,000 acres along the Route 413 corridor between Westover and Marion Station, said company official Adam Cohen.

But not all of the land will be covered with wind turbines since they will be spaced 1,200 to 1,300 feet apart.

“They’re very spread out,” he said. “The actual impact is only about 10 acres.”

While Pioneer Green is still conducting studies and is at least a year away from starting any projects, the city of Crisfield – which has already adopted its own wind ordinance – is planning to install a 300-foot, 750-kilowatt turbine on land next to the sewage treatment plant.

Construction is expected to start in late summer or fall.

And last week, representatives of Associated Wind Developers proposed building a turbine next to Woodson Elementary in Crisfield that they said would save the school system $1 million in electricity costs during the life of the turbine.

The company also proposed building an outdoor classroom next to the turbine and create a renewable energy program at the county’s vocational school.

The Somerset County Board of Education is considering the offer.

Wind-energy developers began looking at the area because of Gov. Martin O’Malley’s goal of generating 20 percent of the state’s energy from renewable sources by 2022, as well as grants, loans and tax credits offered through the Maryland Energy Administration.

Cohen said the turbines would give local farmers another source of income, while the county itself would benefit from an increased tax base.

But Truitt sees wind farms as industrial installations on land zoned for agricultural and residential use.

“This is a megaproject,” she said. “This will change our county.”

Pros and cons

Studies on the possible health effects from turbines can be found to support both sides of the argument.

At an April 12 public hearing, Crisfield City Councilman Mike Atkins, a physician at McCready Hospital, cited a recent study done by the state of Massachusetts that found no evidence of health problems, disease, mental distress, high blood pressure or headaches among people living near wind turbines.

And the light flicker caused by the rotating blades do not cause seizures because the blades don’t move fast enough to create a strobe effect, he said.

The experts on the study panel, which included professors at Harvard Medical School, agreed that more data was needed to find out if turbines can cause sleep disturbances.

A 2011 report by the Sierra Club Canada, titled “The Real Truth About Wind Energy,” found air pollution from the use of fossil fuels was the real culprit for health problems in humans.

“Sierra Club Canada adds its voice to the overwhelming majority of governmental, non-governmental, scientific and environmental groups in saying that a link between well-sited wind turbines and health concerns is unfounded,” the study authors said.

Salisbury attorney Steve Smethurst, who has been hired to represent Truitt and other Marion Station residents, said there are numerous other studies that say just the opposite.

“It’s amazing what you can find out there,” he said. “I have three-ring binders full of stuff.”

Smethurst said wind turbines may affect some people, but not others.

The units create a low-frequency noise that humans can’t hear, but their bodies may react to.

A study was done by the state of Wisconsin after people living near wind farms began reporting problems, Smethurst said. Since then, the state has revised its code.

“They have really tightened up,” he said.

On behalf of his Marion Station clients, Smethurst said he plans to ask Somerset County officials to improve the proposed ordinance so turbines would not create adverse effects on residents.

He also will ask County Commissioners to open the record so more information and studies can be presented.

“I’d hate for Somerset to experience some of the same scenarios Wisconsin did,” he said.

Truitt and others are pushing for larger setbacks from nearby residences. The proposed ordinance calls for a 750-foot setback from a neighboring house, but that is too close, she said.

“If you have a safer setback, you don’t have a lot of the problems,” she said.

Somerset County Commissioners have the authority to make revisions to the ordinance on their own, but for any significant changes, it probably should be sent back to the Planning Commission, said Gary Pusey, the county’s planning director.

Pusey said Simpkins received a letter from Smethurst, but no decision has been made on possible revisions or whether to allow Smethurst to submit more information.

“We’re waiting for direction from the County Commissioners,” he said.