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Local officials concerned about ‘tower farm’ on Mount Tom

HOLYOKE – Another communications tower is rising over the Mount Tom range, a 190-foot-tall edifice erected by Holyoke Gas & Electric to further assess wind power resources and attach telecommunications equipment, according to the municipally owned utility.

The permanent tower, which was being installed on the ridge with the help of a crane this week, was intended to be a precursor to Holyoke Gas & Electric’s plans to install wind turbines at even higher elevations along the scenic and environmentally sensitive mountain range.

However, the Federal Aviation Administration did not approve the utility’s plans for five wind turbines and the future of the renewable energy project remains uncertain, said James Lavelle, manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric.

The federal agency generally gets involved in such projects to determine whether wind turbines are a hazard to the national air space. FAA documents were not immediately available this week, but in a statement to the Gazette, the agency said it determined the five proposed turbines were a hazard to air navigation and affirmed that position on March 28, 2012.

“We know that is a very good wind site,” Lavelle said of the Mount Tom ridge. “We’re back to the drawing board to evaluate what other configurations might be acceptable to the FAA and what might yield competitively priced wind energy.”

Meanwhile, Holyoke Gas & Electric plans to lease space on its new tower for telecommunications equipment, which is likely to include the city’s own public safety resources.

“We’re going to have plenty of room on this tower for leasing telecommunications space,” Lavelle said.

The proposed wind turbine project has been championed by state environmental officials and Gov. Deval Patrick, who has called for increased use of wind power resources. However, several environmental groups have expressed concerns about siting towers and wind turbines along the Mount Tom range, including the Trustees of Reservations and Mass Audubon. When the tower began jutting over the mountain in the past week, it also caught some by surprise.

Last spring the Holyoke City Council rewrote the city’s ordinance for the siting of telecommunications facilities and antennas, and then granted Holyoke Gas & Electric a special permit for the tower. The new ordinance relaxed restrictions for siting towers in environmentally sensitive areas, a Gazette review found.

The utility also received a conservation and management permit from the state Division of Fisheries & Wildlife’s Natural Heritage & Endangered Species program. The tower’s construction is permanently removing priority habitat for rare animal and plant species, most notably venomous snakes.

Easthampton officials said they were disappointed that they were not informed about the proposed tower siting changes unanimously approved by the Holyoke City Council last year. Five of Holyoke’s 15 city councilors did not support a special permit for the tower, city records show.

In addition, Easthampton officials said, they received no notice that a new tower would be constructed on the ridge, a prominent feature of the local landscape. The view of Mount Tom from Easthampton is featured on the city seal.

“We didn’t have much of any heads up,” said Easthampton Mayor Michael A. Tautznik. “I don’t think there’s any real concern on that side of the hill of what it might look like. You’d think there’d be some communication. There hasn’t been.”

“The determination has been made in Holyoke that this is going to be a tower farm,” he added.

The Holyoke Gas & Electric tower is located along a stretch of ridge line that had until recent months been spared from the siting of telecommunications facilities and other equipment. It stands between the cluster of towers and equipment on the south end of the summit and a patchwork of towers on the other end of the range, including a defunct wind turbine that belongs to the University of Massachusetts. The shiny new tower is visible from Route 141, which connects Easthampton and Holyoke.

“I think there are some serious questions about the appropriateness of the site for any kind of self-supporting tower like the kind that was constructed,” said Holyoke resident Joshua Knox. He had expressed concerns about the project in public meetings in that city last year. “This is one of the most valuable areas we have for natural resources in the commonwealth.”

Lavelle said the Holyoke utility’s tower, which is a self-supporting lattice structure, underwent a public and vigorous permitting process. He said there would have been very little “wiggle room” for the public to alter the project given the regulatory process. He also noted that the tower had far more environmental scrutiny than any other installation on the mountain. “Nothing that appears to date has ever come close,” he said.

Lavelle said Holyoke Gas & Electric is not insensitive to the concerns of surrounding communities. He also said the environmental work the utility company is required to do will in the end provide a “net benefit” for rare animal and plant species on the mountain.

Construction on the tower began in December 2011 and involved blasting. A small portion of the Metacomet-Monadnock/New England trail, which has a national scenic designation, fell within the blasting zone and was intermittently closed when explosives were detonated. The state is requiring the company to take several precautions to protect rare plant and animal species being disturbed.

“There’s always concerns about anything going up there because it’s too disruptive to the ecology,” said John Bator, president of the Pascommuck Conservation Trust, which has as its mission the wise development and use of natural resources around Easthampton. “When you look at the mountain from the Valley, you don’t want to look at a picket fence.”

Holyoke Gas & Electric acquired 270 acres of land on the Holyoke side of the range for $1.9 million in 2009 with the goal of gauging its suitability for a renewable energy project. The company moved in after learning that the state Department of Conservation and Recreation was considering buying the property from Springfield Towers LLC. That company is affiliated with John Gormally Jr. of Springfield-based Gormally Broadcasting LLC, which owns ABC affiliate WGGB Channel 40.

The Holyoke utility acquired the property in collaboration with the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative, a state entity charged with promoting the development of renewable energy. Of the 270 acres, at least 200 are to be set aside as protected land. “This project from the beginning was very much a conservation and renewable energy project,” Lavelle said.

With the lack of approvals from the FAA, however, Lavelle said Holyoke Gas & Electric has no firm timetable for a wind-turbine project on the range. The company initially proposed installing five wind turbines that could produce anywhere from 1.65 to 3 megawatts of power.

“We do think that a three-turbine configuration should be approved by the FAA,” Lavelle said.

According to Holyoke Gas & Electric’s development deal, if it was unable to obtain all of the permits and financing necessary for commercial operation of wind generation on Mount Tom prior to Dec. 31, 2011, the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative and state Department of Conservation and Recreation have options to purchase the property. Lavelle said Holyoke Gas & Electric is in talks with all stakeholders involved with that development agreement.