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Zoning board weighs in on turbine bylaw

The issue of how much wind power a turbine owner must use on-site came up again last week as the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals reviewed a proposed wind turbine siting bylaw. The board’s review came at the behest of town planner Brian A. Currie. The planning board finalized its draft bylaw last month and it is set to appear on the warrant for the November Annual Town Meeting.

The zoning board members praised the planning board’s hard work, and specifically lauded the decision to base the bylaw on turbine output rather than physical size. The bylaw would require all turbines with a generation capacity in excess of 300 watts to undergo a formal review by the planning board, which would issue a special permit. Turbines under 300 watts could be erected without a permit. The bylaw caps turbine size at 250 kilowatts of generation capacity. However, the zoning board had concerns about several provisions in the bylaw, starting with a requirement that at least 51 percent of the power generated by a turbine be used by the principal use structure, i.e., the home or business to which the turbine is connected.

“That really bothers me that we’re telling somebody what they can do with their own private property and their own power,” Patricia Favuli said, noting that there is no similar provision in town bylaws for solar energy systems. “I think we’re going too far telling them what they can do with their power.” The 51 percent on-site usage condition was a sticking point for the planning board during its discussions, with members split over whether it was too intrusive or the best way to ensure that a turbine would remain an accessory use structure.

Ms. Favuli argued that by allowing turbine owners to sell off surplus power, it makes erecting a turbine more viable financially, and added that historically town meeting members “do not want to prohibit people’s rights, and they don’t want Big Brother watching,” and those factors could hamper the article’s passage.

Chairman Matthew J. McNamara found fault with the language pertaining to noise standards, specifically the definition of “ambient sound level,” which is: “The background A-weighted decibel average that is exceeded 90 percent of the time, measured during operational hours.” “I just don’t even understand it,” Mr. McNamara said after reading the language verbatim from the draft.

Other members pointed out ambient sound levels are affected by a wide range of conditions, from time of day to the weather, and needed a firm definition for the provision’s intended purpose, to establish how much audible noise is too much.

The planning board set a noise threshold of eight dB, which is below the state’s 10 dB standard. The board went with eight dB to provide some flexibility due to the fact sound modeling sometimes under-measures sound output. Mr. McNamara said that could cause problems since the zoning board uses a six dB-over-ambient standard for noise. “At eight [dB] it’s almost like you’re almost guaranteeing complaints,” he said.

On a related topic, Mr. McNamara expressed concern that the complaint process was under-defined. The bylaw states that “complaints that cannot be resolved by the parties” would go to the town building commissioner or the planning board for a ruling, “but it doesn’t say what happens” from such an appeal, Mr. McNamara said. “It’s very silent about that.”

The bylaw does not address ultra-low-frequency sound at all, which zoning board member Kenneth Foreman noticed. The planning board opted to leave that issue to the Falmouth Board of Health, deciding that ultra-low-frequency sound, believed by some to be the culprit behind what is referred to as “wind turbine syndrome,” is more of a public health concern.

The zoning board also noted that lack of specific standards pertaining to ice throw, when ice build-up dislodges from the spinning blades. The planning board opted not to explicitly address ice throw as the bylaw contains an all-purpose safety setback.