FREEDOM – For the past four years, the wind turbines atop Beaver Ridge have been churning out power. Residents near the wind farm say the spinning blades are disturbingly loud, but in recent years debate about the development has been relatively quiet.
In late April, a series of events at Town Hall unearthed deep resentments that span six years.
The newest sticking point is regulation. Since 2007, there has been no ordinance to regulate industrial wind projects in the town, and Beaver Ridge project was built without any guidelines. In particular, there were no rules on how close the towers could be built to homes.
Now, the town’s planning board is drafting a wind ordinance that addresses the issue of setbacks, and other rules for any future wind development in Freedom. Those rules could limit potential upgrades to the existing turbines. The ordinance will be presented to voters later this year.
There are no current plans for new wind development in Freedom, but an early draft of the ordinance was met with sharp criticism from the board of selectmen.
The drama played out during three consecutive town council meetings.
First, on April 16, First Selectman Ron Price announced that the selectmen would draft their own wind ordinance because the planning board’s draft was too restrictive.
A week later on April 23, about 30 residents packed Town Hall to express their anger over the selectman’s move. Many claimed Price was acting with his own interests in mind, because Price owns 76 acres of land atop Beaver Ridge. Price leases his land to the wind company and earns monthly royalties; no other landowners have a stake in the Beaver Ridge Wind project.
On April 30, the board of selectmen bowed to public pressure and backed away from creating its own ordinance. The board’s reversal satisfied many residents, but some say the future of regulation remains uncertain: Will voters agree to an ordinance that could prevent future wind projects in the town?
Supporters of wind power say the benefits of renewable energy should override some residents’ concerns about visual impact or noise. Opponents say the wind turbines generate too little power to justify their invasive presence, and they say Price’s actions are driven by personal income, not environmentalism.
Living in the shadow
Thirteen years ago, Jeff Keating bought 10 acres of land near the top of Beaver Ridge for its expansive, unspoiled view of the western mountains. He said he built a dream home on the site for his wife and three children – a classic cape-style house that closely mimics early-American features.
Keating, 44, said he wanted the house “to look like it had been here for centuries.”
Keating may have succeeded in creating a tableau of Colonial times on his land, but the land directly to the east is now distinctly modern.
Eight years after the Keatings moved in, three 400-foot towers arrived.
About 1,600 feet away from Keating’s house looms the closest of the three Beaver Ridge Wind towers. In the morning, sunlight shines through the spinning 100-foot-long tower blades and creates a dizzying strobe-light effect within his house, a phenomenon called blade flicker. And throughout the day, and particularly at night when cooling air settles downward on the ridge, the blades create a penetrating sound.
“It sounds like a plane keeps flying over my house and never goes away,” said Keating, a former resident of Long Island, N.Y. “I chose Freedom to get away from the craziness of New York, and found it here instead.”
The craziness, he said, is not only from the industrial sights and sounds of the towers. It also comes from the political landscape that fostered the wind project and continues to advocate on its behalf, he said.
Keating said wind power can be a good thing, under certain conditions.
“Wind turbines are a horror show for anyone who lives within a mile of them,” he said.
Short, troubled history
Beaver Ridge Wind is a 4.5 megawatt, three-turbine wind farm. The turbines produce about 12.5 million kilowatt-hours per year, which is enough electricity to power 2,000 homes, according to the company’s website.
In 2006, Beaver Ridge Wind submitted a permit application to the town, said Chairman of the Planning Board Bill Pickford. The developers proposed to build three towers on land owned by Price, who was elected selectman in March 2007.
At the time of the application, there was no ordinance in Freedom to regulate industrial wind projects, so the planning board asked the developers for enough time to draft regulations. The developers agreed, Pickford said.
After the ordinance was passed, the planning board determined Beaver Ridge Wind’s application met the criteria of the newly created regulations, and a permit was issued.
At that point, Steve Bennett, a longtime resident of Beaver Ridge who was a selectman at the time, contested the permit, saying the company couldn’t prove the wind turbines would comply with the noise requirement of less than 45 decibels from the nearest residence, or 55 decibels at the nearest property lines. The company also wouldn’t agree to contribute money to a decommissioning bond – a stipulation of the ordinance that would pay for the towers’ removal if the business ever faltered.
The board of appeals sided with Bennett and the permit was rejected, Bennett said.
Soon after, however, townspeople circulated a petition to repeal the ordinance. Their effort was successful, which effectively eliminated any regulation of industrial wind projects in town.
Bennett’s term as selectman ended in March 2007, at the same time Price was elected. Bennett said he did not run again because he wanted to avoid any perception of a conflict of interest while he fought the wind project.
In July 2007, without any commercial regulation in place, the planning board issued a building permit. State regulations regarding industrial wind projects did not come into effect until April 2008, long after a building permit had been issued.
Bennett tried to appeal the second permit, but it was a lost cause.
“They got rid of all the rules, so there wasn’t much basis for an appeal, so I didn’t get anywhere,” he said.
Bennett, who owns 250 acres on Beaver Ridge, said his home is about 2,900 feet from the nearest tower. He agreed with Keating’s assessment of the towers’ blade flicker and noise.
“They dominate the sights and sounds of where we live,” he said.
Before the towers went up, the developers offered to buy Bennett’s land, he said. He refused.
“I was here first. I’ve been here 32 years. I love my neighborhood, I love my neighbors and I love the land,” he said. “I believe in the land and taking care of it. It makes me sick to think I could turn my back on the neighbors because I have a little bit of land that someone would want. And, I’m too damn stubborn anyway.”
Bennett said he doesn’t believe in the viability of land-based wind power.
“It doesn’t work because it’s intermittent. The wind blows and then it doesn’t blow,” he said. “It’s not the kind of power that’s going to operate your microwave. You can’t depend on it to provide baseload power. In my opinion, it’s not a functional form of electricity.”
A new ordinance
After the industrial wind ordinance was repealed in 2007, the planning board spent the next five years creating a comprehensive plan for Freedom. The plan, which was completed last summer, gave the planning board authority to draft commercial review ordinances. With that mandate in place, the planning board began developing a wind ordinance soon aferward.
Before composing the draft, the planning board sought input from a wide range of sources, Pickford said.
“We had eight (public) meetings that were solely devoted to creating a wind power ordinance,” he said.
Attendees at the meetings included members of planning boards from Jackson, Dixmont, Montville and Unity who gave testimony on how they developed their own wind ordinances. The meetings also included four wind engineers, representatives from the Department of Environmental Protection, residents who live near Beaver Ridge Wind and wind developers, Pickford said.
“We had all the sides. I thought we brought in as many people as possible. There are people in town who believe it’s perhaps too strict, but it seems to be line with what every other town is doing,” he said. “That’s the norm for every other town that’s adopted something, so I don’t think we’re out of whack here.”
The most contentious issue of the 61-page ordinance are setbacks.
“(Industrial) wind turbines will be set back from the property line of any non-participating landowner a distance of no less than 13 times the turbine height,” the draft proposal states.
That means a turbine that is mounted 400 feet in the air cannot be any closer than 5,200 feet from the nearest property line that is not included in the project; however, a provision would allow property owners within the setback area to waive their rights and allow new wind development or upgrades.
Beaver Ridge Wind is far closer to non-participating property lines than what is proposed by the planning board, but the site is grandfathered in. However, if Beaver Ridge Wind seeks to replace its 400-foot towers with larger ones, the company would have to seek permission from any property owners that are covered by the proposed ordinance.
Secretary to the Selectmen Glen Bridges was a member of the planning board until she resigned in April in protest of the draft ordinance. She said a distance of 13 times the height of turbine from the nearest property line would effectively ban industrial wind development because there are no locations in town that could accommodate such a setback. She argued for a fixed distance of 4,000 feet, but said her voice wasn’t heard.
“They weren’t interested in doing that at all,” she said of the planning board. “They’re outlawing wind power in a very surreptitious way.”
Bridges added that the draft ordinance appears to restrict the owners of Beaver Ridge Wind from replacing turbines at the end of their expected 25-year life span.
Bridges said she’s passionate about industrial wind power.
“Climate change is basically my whole motivation,” she said. “I think renewables can’t come fast enough or hard enough.”
Critics, however, suggest that Bridges is supporting her boss on the selectboard, Price, so he can earn more money from Beaver Ridge Wind if the towers are ever upgraded to produce more energy – a claim that Bridges said is false.
“I would support wind power no matter what company was installing it or who owns the land. I supported a wind project in Clifton for the same reason. So, if there’s any collusion, it’s probably because there are a number of people as concerned as I am and support wind power. That’s all,” she said. “As far as Ron Price standing to gain … I don’t see that. I think that’s a false charge.”
Price said he rescinded his decision to draft a competing ordinance due to public perception.
“A lot of people think there’s a conflict of interest on my part to have anything to do with it at all, and I just got tired of being accused of that,” he said. “So, I brought it up to the board and suggested that maybe it would be better to back off the thing … and let the planning board come up with what they want to come up with. It will get presented to the town and the town can decide what they want for an ordinance.”
Pickford said the planning board is pleased the selectmen won’t submit a competing ordinance.
“We’re hoping is it means the selectmen will now cooperate with us, and support the ordinances that we bring to the town,” he said.
Bennett said he supports the planning board’s ordinance, but he’s not sure if voters will approve.
“It’s hard to say. I gave up a long time ago trying to predict how are people will vote on things,” Bennett said. “I think it’s a fair ordinance. I think it’s very similar to other ordinances all across the state of Maine.”
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