Falmouth Planning Board gave the green light to five articles for the upcoming Spring Annual and Special Town Meetings, two of which could determine the future of wind turbines in town. The most significant of the five articles is the newest draft of an updated wind turbine bylaw, which would replace an outdated town bylaw that does not restrict wind turbine size or placement.
Town Meeting voters effectively suspended the existing bylaw in 2011 when they approved a moratorium on turbine development in town. That moratorium, which received a one-year extension last spring, ends on May 1, and what happens next depends on whether voters approve the new bylaw. However, heading into Town Meeting, planning board members are braced to deal with what member James E. Fox said is “a tremendous amount of confusion” among the public, who “bundles the wind turbine things all together.” He said in speaking with residents, he encountered many people who could not distinguish between the new bylaw and Article 15, a petition article asking the town to approve a debt exclusion that would finish paying off the two town-owned turbines on Blacksmith Shop Road, West Falmouth, in order to facilitate their complete removal from the wastewater treatment facility.
Articles 21 through 23 on the Special Town Meeting warrant also deal with decommissioning the turbines. Mr. Fox recommended putting the turbine bylaw article on hold and instead pushing an article on the Special Town Meeting warrant intended as a fallback should the bylaw fail: an outright ban on wind turbine development.
The ban would preclude public and private turbine development anywhere in town, except for those covered by a state exemption; turbines attached to qualifying agricultural, religious, or educational entities would remain permissible. Mr. Fox said this approach would clarify the issue for voters, and did not prevent the board from reintroducing the bylaw at a later Town Meeting, once the Falmouth Board of Selectmen had sufficiently addressed the issues with the town turbines. “I know we worked on it for years,” Mr. Fox said of the bylaw article, “but there’s a tremendous amount of confusion in the town, and I can’t seem to get it straight when I talk to people.”
“I think we can make it very clear,” Patricia H. Kerfoot said, stating that the board members could clarify the issue at the upcoming precinct meetings, and through the board’s presentation at Town Meeting.
The New Bylaw The board approved a handful of minor tweaks to the bylaw, which are not reflected in the printed copy of the bylaw now available to voters, but will be in copies of the bylaw that will be made available to Town Meeting members at their precinct meetings. The proposed bylaw would limit small turbines, meaning any turbine with a generation capacity of less than 60 kilowatts (kW), to single residence A and AA, agricultural A and AA, business 2, public use, and light industrial zoning districts. Large turbines, turbines with a capacity more than 60 kW and up to 250 kW, would be restricted to Public Use and Light Industrial zones. Turbine capacity would be capped at 250 kW.
All proposed turbines, whether owned by a public or private entity, would be subject to the permitting process through the planning board, regardless of size. The previous proposed bylaw, rejected by voters at the 2012 November Annual Town Meeting, granted a review exemption to any turbines smaller than 300 watts, but that exemption was removed from the new draft.
Another provision of the earlier draft bylaw, requiring at least 51 percent of the power generated by a turbine to be used on site, was also removed. The board inserted that language to help enforce the definition of turbines as an accessory use and prevent individuals from erecting turbines explicitly as a money-making enterprise, but voters regarded the provision as too restrictive.
The board lifted a requirement for developers to, as part of the application process, erect a meteorological tower and collect 12 months worth of wind speed data for a proposed turbine site. The new version retains the tower requirement for large turbines, but also allows a developer to provide 12 months of equivalent data through another source, such as the data available through the US Department of Energy’s Wind Program and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory.
In response to requests from the public at last month’s hearing on the bylaw, the board this week approved a change to its eight decibel (dB) noise threshold for determining the sound setback. Residents asked that the threshold be lowered to six dB to provide added protection to abutters and compensate for accuracy errors in sound modeling studies. Paul C. Dreyer opposed lowering the threshold, stating that the six dB level seemed arbitrary, but other board members said there was evidence to support the theory sound modeling studies had an accuracy variance of up to 20 percent. Mr. Dreyer was the only member to vote against the change. Under the revised language, a turbine’s noise output, as measured from the property line, exceeding six dB over the ambient background noise levels would be considered a violation.
The board also honored a suggestion to add a key word to a section of the bylaw covering turbines in existence prior to the bylaw’s passage, in the event the owner seeks to significantly alter, modify, or relocate the turbine. The word “lawfully” was added to that section, which Town Planner Brian A. Currie said enforces the purpose of the provision, which is to ensure that any project affecting an existing turbine would go before the planning board for a special permit, rather than to the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals, by designating it as a conforming structure. Normally nonconforming structures are under the jurisdiction of the zoning board, and that board’s process under the “preexisting, non-conforming statute is a much easier test” for projects seeking a special permit. He added that the language does not provide amnesty for existing turbines that are determined to be unlawfully permitted.
Clarification language was added to specifically include municipal government entities among the potential developers, along with residents and business owners, but on the advice of Mr. Currie, the amendment did not include references to state or federal government bodies, which are not legally bound to heed local bylaws.
The board did not accept recommendations to consider “C-weighted” decibel levels, which cover high-level sound pressure, in addition to “A-weighted,” which is the standard measure of audible sound, as part of the sound modeling study required for all proposed turbines.
If this new bylaw passes, the planning board intends to recommend indefinite postponement of the turbine ban article on the Special Town Meeting warrant. If neither the bylaw nor the ban pass, the original bylaw goes back into effect when the moratorium ends.
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