FALMOUTH – Town meeting voted down a warrant article Tuesday night that would have authorized the spending of $14 million to remove two town-owned turbines.
State Rep. David Vieira, R-Falmouth, who moderated town meeting, called the initial voice vote in favor of the article, but when the votes were counted after a challenge, the measure was defeated, 125 to 72. It required a two-thirds majority to pass.
Low boos and hisses could be heard soon after the vote as people filed out of the Lawrence School auditorium at about 11:15 p.m.
“I don’t know what to say,” Malcolm Donald, an abutter and outspoken opponent of Falmouth’s municipal turbines, said moments after the vote. “It’s another bump in the road. The party’s not over, and we’re going to move on.”
The defeat represents a huge blow to some neighbors of the 1.65-megawatt turbines on Blacksmith Shop Road. Neighbors, who say the turbines cause headaches, tinnitus and other health problems, have been trying to have the turbines removed since Wind 1 started spinning about three years ago.
Officials in Fairhaven are facing similar complaints from residents who blame ongoing health problems on two wind turbines installed in town.
If the article had been approved, it would have been the first time in the United States that a community had voted to remove wind turbines, a spokeswoman for the American Wind Energy Association confirmed.
Selectmen had said they would place the question of whether the town should remove the turbines on the May 21 town election ballot, whether or not the measure passed town meeting.
The move comes less than a week after the town was notified that if it removes the turbines, Falmouth will be responsible for nearly $6 million of turbine-related debt.
In a letter sent to Town Manager Julian Suso last week, the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center said if Wind 1 is removed, it would not forgive at least $1 million in renewable energy credits it prepaid to the town.
A separate letter sent to Suso on Thursday by the Massachusetts Water Pollution Abatement Trust – which released stimulus funds to Falmouth – said if Wind 2 stops operating, Falmouth would be required to pay back a nearly $5 million stimulus grant the town received to erect it.
Suso previously estimated that removing the turbines without any debt forgiveness would cost the town up to $15.2 million. Under that estimate, Suso said that Falmouth residents who owned houses valued at $470,000 would likely pay an extra $48 per year in taxes. Over time, those individuals would pay a total of $800, Selectman Douglas Jones said Tuesday night.
In addition to borrowing money to remove the turbines, the article asked for approval for the town to seek special legislation that would allow it to borrow money to remove the turbines.
In a presentation Tuesday night, Suso explained that $8.26 million of the cost to remove the turbines would need to be borrowed.
Selectman Kevin Murphy, chairman of the board, urged town meeting to approve the measure.
“Some folks believe we were bullied into this decision. On my part I can tell you I’ve never been bullied into anything,” Murphy said. “We don’t need to pit neighbor against neighbor.”
Murphy also criticized the state as being “hell-bent” on keeping Falmouth’s turbines from becoming a failed project. State officials showed this attitude when they refused to forgive the stimulus funds, Murphy said.
Turbine-related health complaints are not substantiated by scientific study, said Richard Latimer, a planning board and town meeting member. He favored taking property by eminent domain.
“It is not good public policy to spend $14 million to lose $7 million,” Latimer said, referring to the estimated amount the town would lose in revenue. “We take the property for fair value, that’s what the constitution says. It doesn’t say we squander taxpayer money for a political solution.”
For Precinct 6 town meeting member Michael Duffany, his belief that the turbines should come down stem from a day he drove up to the turbines to hear them. He first thought he picked a bad day because he heard what he thought was a jet landing at the Massachusetts Military Reservation, he said. But he was told that was the turbine. “If you were standing there with me, you would say the same thing,” Duffany said.
Wastewater Superintendent Gerald Potamis said he believed the state was acting in accordance with federal guidelines when they denied debt forgiveness.
Calling the turbine controversy a social issue rather than a legal or health issue, Potamis recommended an amendment that would strike the borrowing authorization from the article. Town meeting voted the amendment down.
Selectman Brent Putnam pointed out that a panel discussed mitigation options for months, and out of their options selectmen found taking the turbines down to be the best. He pointed out the costs associated with running the turbines on a curtailed basis. “Operating with curtailment isn’t really an option because we’re doing that now, and we’re losing money every year,” Putnam said.
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