After Tuesday’s town elections are out of the way, the Falmouth Planning Board plans to adopt a weekly meeting schedule so it can develop its wind turbine siting bylaw in time for the November Annual Town Meeting.
That decision came after Tuesday night’s board meeting, which saw more than 90 minutes of discussion on the draft bylaw, most of it focused on how to precisely define turbines as an accessory use structure.
Starting with its next meeting on Tuesday, May 22, the planning board will hold weekly meetings, with every alternate meeting to focus solely on developing the bylaw. The board also expects to begin holding a series of formal public hearings on the draft.
The planning board reconsidered its previous stance on which town agency would be responsible for issuing special permits for turbine projects. In earlier meetings, the planning board leaned toward placing that responsibility with the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals, but this week the consensus was that the planning board itself should be the permitting agency.
“We’re developing the bylaw, and I know for a fact that as this thing moves forward, that we can’t expect the zoning board of appeals to do the type of research that we’ve done on this, and also, we can’t expect them to do the deliberations that we have done and are going to do between now and Fall Town Meeting,” Chairman Ralph E. Herbst said. “I think it’s very appropriate that the planning board be the permit granting authority.”
“It is a new bylaw that we’re putting in place, and we need to know firsthand, immediately, what the problems might be,” Patricia H. Kerfoot added.
Kenneth W. Medeiros II was the only member to voice support for making the zoning board the permitting authority due to its regular interaction with other town departments. “Do we have all the other things and inter-actions that the ZBA deals with every day?” he said. “There’s a lot more in this [bylaw] than in anything that this board has ever had to deal with on a special permit.”
Most of the night focused on fine-tuning the draft bylaw’s definition of a turbine as an accessory use structure, and determining how much power turbine owners would be required to use on-site.
At the board’s April 27 meeting, the board came to a consensus that the “economically significant portion” of the power generated by a turbine should be dedicated for on-site use, and the appropriate scale of a turbine could, as per Ms. Kerfoot’s suggestion, be determined by calculating the maximum power requirements of the principal use structure.
In trying to pin down a definition of “accessory use” as it applies to a turbine, Marlene V. McCollem, assistant town planner, said that current town bylaws measure accessory use structures as a percentage of the principal use structure, based on measurable criteria such as square footage and building height.
For turbines, Ms. McCollem recommended measuring accessory use as a percentage of the principal structure’s average peak power needs.
“Setting it as a percentage of profit or cost is very difficult to do, because then you’re relying on, essentially, self-reporting,” she said, while setting it as a percentage of the power needs could be tracked through the structure’s utility bills, and a special permit could be conditioned to require annual reporting to ensure the turbine is not over-producing power. “Because [power] is metered, it’s easy to measure.”
This led the board to return to a sticking point from its April 27 discussion regarding how much power a turbine owner should be allowed to sell back to the grid. The latest draft of the bylaw listed a 75 percent on-site usage rate, meaning that no more than 25 percent of any turbine-geneated power could be sold for a profit.
Some board members had an issue with the 75 percent figure, deeming it an arbitrary number.Ms. McCollem said the percentages “are arbitrary, but that’s okay, because just about everything in zoning is arbitrary; it’s based on what your citizens want.”
Board members Richard K. Latimer and Douglas C. Brown favored more lax usage requirements that would allow businesses to erect turbines with profit generation in mind.
“I have a fundamental problem with stopping business from putting up a wind turbine as an investment. Why would you do that?” Mr. Brown said. “It’s contrary to the whole net metering concept and trying to encourage renewable [energy].”
Net metering, which was added to the Green Communities Act in 2008, allows anyone who generates energy on-site through renewable technology, such as wind turbines and solar panels, to sell surplus power to the Independent System Operator New England Inc. (ISO-NE), the New England region’s power supply manager.
Ms. Kerfoot reiterated one of her regular arguments, that allowing turbines explicitly for money-making purposes meant the town would be permitting, in effect, power plants.
She further noted that discouraging wind turbine development expressly as a for-profit venture is why the board agreed, very early on in the bylaw drafting process, to restrict future wind turbines to a maximum capacity of 660 kilowatts—about the size of the Massachusetts Maritime Academy’s turbine.
“We did say no, we don’t want to go to the industrial-sized ones like we have at the treatment plant,” Ms. Kerfoot said, referring to the two town-owned turbines located at the wastewater treatment facility on Blacksmith Shop Road. “They are causing too much trouble, and we don’t know how to figure them out.”
The board agreed to grant wind turbine developers some wiggle room and allow turbines that are slightly overpowered for the principal structure; capacity plus 10 percent was suggested as a way to address not only the profit generation issue, but the debate that arose over future business growth.
That discussion was sparked when Mr. Herbst posed the question: what if a business owner planned to expand his business in phases, and wanted to construct a turbine that met his future projected energy needs? He said the bylaw as currently worded would prevent that business owner from building a turbine designed for his future needs.
“I just don’t want to see these percentages,” Mr. Herbst said. “They just don’t make sense to me.”
Mr. Medeiros argued that the cap should be based on the energy needs of “the initial business…there should be a percentage, some percentage of X, that they don’t exceed when they start, so that when they expand, they use up that percentage.”
He pointed out that more liberal standards could allow a business to start off small and erect a turbine designed to accommodate future expansion, but then never expand and simply make its money off the turbine.