HOLYOKE – State officials are in talks with Holyoke Gas & Electric to purchase a sprawling section of the Mount Tom ridge after a federal agency rejected the utility company’s plans to build five 500-foot-tall wind turbines on the property.
Holyoke Gas & Electric purchased 270 acres around the summit near the Easthampton and Holyoke lines for $1.9 million in 2009 with the goal of harnessing wind power as well as to erect a communications tower. While that 190-foot lattice tower was constructed on the ridge line late last year, the company’s wind power installation plans were twice denied by the Federal Aviation Administration.
Now, the state is looking to buy the land under a clause in an existing development agreement with the goal of protecting the land from any further development.
“We would be looking to put that land in conservation,” said Richard K. Sullivan Jr., state secretary of the Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs. “That’s pretty much what the agreement calls for.”
Meanwhile, Easthampton Mayor Michael A. Tautznik is lobbying state officials to exercise their right to buy and preserve the land, saying the site “has shown itself to be an inhospitable location for wind power” in an email he sent to Gov. Deval Patrick.
And while a spokesman for Holyoke Gas & Electric maintains there is enormous wind potential on Mount Tom, the company largely has backed off from pursuing the project.
The state had initially sought to buy the land to add to its holdings on the mountain, but acquiesced when Holyoke Gas & Electric bought the property instead for a wind-turbine installation championed by Patrick and state environmental officials.
After reviewing the project, the FAA determined the proposed wind turbines would be a hazard to the national air space for aircraft associated with Bradley International Airport, Westover Air Force Base and Northampton Airport.
“Numerous instrument department procedures, instrument approach procedures, minimum vectoring altitudes, and air traffic radio communications would be adversely impacted if these turbines are built,” Dennis E. Roberts, an FAA director of Air Space Services wrote in a March 28, 2012 letter.
When Holyoke Gas & Electric acquired the property from Springfield Towers LLC, a development agreement was struck with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation, and the quasi-public Massachusetts Technology Collaborative. The agreement gives the latter two parties options to acquire the property now that deadlines have passed for Holyoke Gas & Electric to obtain permits and begin construction of the wind turbines.
“The nature of our agreement was to explore the possibility of wind power while ensuring the majority of the property was used for conservation, and that agreement is ongoing,” said James Lavelle, manager of Holyoke Gas & Electric. He said HG&E is in talks with the state Department of Conservation and Recreation about its right to purchase the property, though he still believes the site has enormous wind potential.
“Our interest in the site from the beginning was for both renewable energy and conservation, so if the final outcome is that it is used for conservation, then that’s not a loss,” said Lavelle. “Some projects require more due diligence than others, and if it’s not viable, you move on.”
And while Lavelle told the Gazette in June that HG&E planned to come up with “new configurations” for wind turbines to resubmit to the FAA, this week he said no new proposal has been drafted.
Meantime, Tautznik has contacted state officials advocating for it to purchase of the scenic and environmentally sensitive ridge line.
“I’m encouraging them to exercise their right to purchase since clearly Holyoke Gas & Electric has not met the conditions in the agreement, and the site has only marginal wind potential, at best,” Tautznik said.
In an email message sent July 3 to Gov. Patrick, Tautznik said the FAA’s rejection of the proposed wind turbines in March should have signaled the end of the project.
“They’ve essentially made a mess of the ridge, and they can’t come up with proof it’s a good site for wind,” he told the Gazette.
Lavelle argued that there is “overwhelming proof” that the site is suitable. He said that wind energy experts, including consultants hired by the city, have concluded that the site has potential.
“There are a number of challenges, but we’ve studied it enough and determined that it meets the criteria of a good wind site,” he said.
Tower up and ready
Lavelle said the new communications tower, which will collect data about the wind power potential as well as harboring communications equipment, is now complete. He declined to say when the company would start providing data about the “wind quality” on top of the mountain, stating that the topic was “tied to the discussions with the state.”
The company built the tower after the Holyoke City Council rewrote a local ordinance that had previously prohibited such towers in that location, which is in close proximity to the Metacomet-Monadnock/New England trail, which has a national scenic designation.
In his email, Tautznik urged the governor to direct Sullivan to work with Department of Conservation and Recreation Commissioner Edward M. Lambert Jr. to purchase the land for conservation.
The message argued that the parcel was a “prime candidate for state protection” because of its diverse habitat, rare species and close proximity to state park land. Tautznik said he also wrote to Sullivan, urging him to work with Lambert on a purchase.
As part of its recent tower construction permit process, Holyoke Gas & Electric had to relocate rare timber rattlesnakes to a Rhode Island zoo where they will be bred and then re-released on the mountain range and monitored with tracking devices for a period of 12 months. The company also must take several other conservation measures over the next few years to protect rare plant and animal species, according to a permit from the state’s Natural Heritage and Endangered Species Program.
“I hope they’ll take a serious look at the damage that’s already been done to the habitat and if there is any real proven potential for wind power,” Tautznik said of state environmental officials. “I hope they understand that the resources need to be protected.”
He said Holyoke officials were “less than forthcoming” throughout the process when they rewrote a city ordinance to allow for the construction of the tower and failed to alert Easthampton officials about the project.
“I’ve lost all trust in Holyoke officials on this project,” he said.
|Wind Watch relies entirely
on User Funding