The breeze that was blowing in the face of proponents of large commercial wind turbines in Plymouth, shifted Tuesday, when the Board of Selectmen declined to go along with the Planning Board’s recommendation of a modified two-year moratorium on new turbine proposals.
The original plan was a citizen-petitioned article on the warrant of the fall Town Meeting that asked for a two-year moratorium on all wind turbine projects in town.
The town’s law firm offered the opinion, prior to the Planning Board meeting, that the original article’s wording was too broad to be legally binding. But, after modifying the language, the planners recommended a moratorium by a vote of 3-2.
When the selectmen reviewed the same article, however, only Selectman Ken Tavares supported the modified version, arguing that a two-year moratorium that would only affect turbines more than 100 feet tall proposed for village centers, the harbor and residential areas was justified by the protections it might provide the town and its citizens.
Tavares received little support from his fellow selectmen, though Chairman Matt Muratore made it clear that one of main reasons he could not support the moratorium was because of its length.
Regardless of the length of the moratorium, the two questions town officials and concerned residents want answered are whether there are proven negative health outcomes associated with large wind turbines and, if so, what, if anything, can be done about them.
Both of those questions were addressed at this hearing, as they were at the Planning Board meeting the previous week. But, perhaps because of the publicity about that meeting and its outcome, Tuesday there were considerably more speakers in support of wind power and against the moratorium.
Plymouth resident and former Energy Committee member Brian Kuhn – who works in the wind energy field – asked selectmen not to “throw the baby out with the bathwater.”
Kuhn pointed out that Plymouth’s wind power regulations are seen as a model for the rest of the state and that, while they could be improved, there is no need to stop the process while they’re reviewed.
“These machines are looked at very closely,” Kuhn said, noting that only half of the turbines proposed in Plymouth have been approved.
“I think we have something very good in Plymouth and good momentum,” Kuhn added, “and we don’t want lose that momentum.”
Keith Mann, a cranberry grower who by virtue of approval for several turbines for his property in South Plymouth is arguably the most successful wind energy developer in town, argued passionately that the regulations the town already has in place are working.
“It took two years, a dozen public hearings, four to five Planning Board hearings, four to five Zoning Board hearings,” Mann said, referring to the wind project he brought forward, “and the project evolved and improved during that process.”
Mann noted that before his project was approved he had to have a number of studies conducted, including an acoustic analysis.
State law requires that the turbines cannot generate more than 10 decibels of sound above what is called “ambient levels.”
“We did acoustic studies,” Mann stated, “ and the levels were well below that.”
Mann disputed the notion that modern wind turbines can negative effect the health of residents.
“I have looked at all the peer reviewed journals on this issue and there were no studies that indicated that wind has adverse health effects, Mann said. “It is the healthiest form of energy that you can buy.”
But another former Energy Committee member, retired research scientist Lee Burns, politely disagreed with several of Mann’s points.
Burns suggested – noting that he spoke as a private citizen, not a member of the Energy Committee – that the acoustic studies that are usually performed don’t take into account the “infrasound” generated by large wind turbines.
Infrasound is sound that is lower in frequency than 20 Hz (Hertz) or cycles per second, which is considered the normal limit of human hearing. It’s sound that, oddly enough, can’t be heard.
Burns referenced a research study, which he said concluded that 3 percent of residents of the Netherlands who were exposed to infrasound suffered “severe distress.”
Burns and other speakers noted that there are currently a number of scientific studies being conducted specifically to address the question of the health effects of wind turbines – suggesting that it would be prudent for the town to wait for the results to be published before allowing any more large wind turbines in town.
After more than an hour of testimony, when the selectmen began to speak, it was immediately apparent there was not majority support for a moratorium.
Selectman Sergio Harnais called the moratorium “a knee jerk reaction” and argued that there are endless reports on the Internet to support both sides.
Selectman John Mahoney expressed faith in town regulators and said that both a careful review and possible revisions to the wind bylaw, and continued review of new proposals for turbines, could take place at the same time. He strongly urged the Energy Committee to give priority to a review of the bylaw.
Selectman Belinda Brewster said the town already has sufficient checks and balances in place.
“I don’t think it would be a bad idea to take a break,” Chairman Matt Muratore stated, taking a different tact, “but I won’t be supporting a two-year moratorium. I think a year would make more sense, but I think we going to let this go to Town Meeting and let them debate the whole thing.”
Only Tavares was in favor of recommending the moratorium to Town Meeting, and the final vote on his motion was 4-1.
The article will now go to Town Meeting with a narrow recommendation for approval (3-2) from the Planning Board, and no recommendation from the Board of Selectmen.
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