Town Meeting agreed to let voters have a say whether Falmouth’s wind turbines should come down after more than three hours of discussion in which a range of emotions, from compassion to anger, were on display in the latest chapter of the contentious issue.
Ever since the blades of the town’s first turbine began turning, neighbors have complained it disrupted their sleep, impacted their health and lowered the property values of the homes they live in. The joy that they said was sucked out of their lives has since cast a pall on the town as a whole. “We haven’t had an issue like this since the cranberry bogs,” Chairman of the Falmouth Board of Selectmen Kevin E. Murphy said at one point during Tuesday’s session, in reference to the dispute that occurred in the mid-2000s when the town was split over whether to take steps to protect the Coonamessett River at the expense of its cranberry bogs.
In assessing the vitriol that has surrounded the wind turbines, Mr. Murphy called on Town Meeting to exhibit some empathy for one another in an effort to come to a meaningful resolution and pass Article 22 to authorize the borrowing of money to remove the turbines.
“What does it profit man if he gains the world, but loses his soul?” he asked. “Do you want to lose the soul of this community? Because when we pit neighbor against neighbor and one project against another that is what happens.”
Mr. Murphy and his four colleagues on the board have attempted since February to end the acrimony by pushing to have the turbines dismantled, decommissioned and sold either for parts or to another community. To that end, selectmen asked Town Meeting to approve incurring $8.26 million in additional debt to move the process forward.
Over the past two months town officials have attempted to convince the state to help defray a portion of the total expense. Last week the town was given its answer, a definitive no from both the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center and the Massachusetts Water Pollution Abatement Trust, which denied, respectively, requests to forgive Falmouth the $1 million given to the town in Renewable Energy Certificates (RECs) for Wind 1 as well as the repayment of the $4.85 million in stimulus money Falmouth received to construct Wind 2. With that, Mr. Murphy said, the state showed “it is hell bent on not having a failure with wind energy.”
With no financial assistance from the state, Falmouth taxpayers would be left footing the bill, translating into what Selectman Douglas H. Jones said would be $800 over a 18-year period on a home valued at $470,000.
According to Deborah Siegal, Precinct Six, that would equal roughly $54 in the first year and decline over time. “That is $13 on our quarterly tax payment and it is $5 by the end of a 20-year payment schedule,” she said. “Can most of the people who own a house in this town really consider $54 a year to be a burden? We need to be honest with ourselves.” She said it is unhealthy when the community “turns into the tyranny of the majority and demonizes our neighbors… Our neighbors are paying a heavy price for the sense of satisfaction from decreasing the town’s contribution to climate change.”
Michael Duffany, Precinct Six, agreed that the turbines should come down, although he acknowledged that “I don’t know if there are any winners in this, except we can help others not find themselves in the same predicament we find ourselves in.” He told Town Meeting that he had recently visited the neighborhood surrounding the turbines and equated the noise of the machines to a low-flying C-130. “I could not believe what I was hearing,” he said. “It just stopped me right in my tracks. At that point in time I didn’t need to read any more studies about sound levels that haven’t been established yet. Throw it all out the window. If you were standing there you would have said the same thing.”
The majority of comments Tuesday evening were in support of authorizing the town to borrow the money and letting voters have the final say at the polls in May. But even with that vocal support the measure failed to gain the necessary two-thirds vote when 125 stood in favor of the motion and 72 were in opposition. That motion failed by a total of six votes, leading Mr. Murphy to propose another one at 11:15 PM, which Town Moderator David T. Vieira said would have to wait until Wednesday. The extra 20 hours of waiting only served to widen the rift. When the third night of Town Meeting got underway on Wednesday, Selectman Murphy made a motion asking that Town Meeting support a ballot question asking voters whether the turbines should be taken down.
At that Richard K. Latimer, Precinct Two, objected to any new motions on Article 22. A shouting match ensued between Mr. Vieira and Mr. Latimer. “What state law am I violating?” asked Mr. Vieira. “You’re the lawyer. You tell me.” He then explained that allowing Mr. Murphy’s new motion would not represent a violation of Town Meeting rules. “Many communities in the commonwealth do it,” he said. “In Mashpee and Bourne selectmen put questions on the ballot without any vote of Town Meeting.” “What does our bylaw say?” Mr. Latimer said. “We are silent on our procedure,” Mr. Vieira shot back.
The heated exchange led Adrian C.J. Dufresne, Precinct Two, to essentially ask that the session start from the beginning. “Rather than start off with this dialogue, maybe we should have saluted the flag and said a prayer,” he said.
Although Town Meeting agreed with his recommendation, it did not change the tenor or the tone of the discussion that followed. Shortly thereafter Scoba F. Rhodes, Precinct Eight, questioned why Town Meeting was continuing the discussion after an hour-and-a-half debate the night before that ended with Tuesday evening’s failed vote. “I’m concerned this sets a precedent I haven’t seen at Town Meeting in over 40 years,” he said. “I’ve done this before,” said Mr. Vieira, “I’ve actually done it twice.” “I think twice is enough,” Mr. Rhodes said, suggesting Town Meeting should make the decision. “I’m not going to ask this body if a legal rule and procedure used at this Town Meeting and used multiple times and part of procedures of Town Meeting all over New England should be changed,” Mr. Vieira said. “It is in order unless we’ve moved on to another article.”
With that Mr. Murphy made a new motion seeking Town Meeting to authorize a $100,000 expenditure to fund a request for proposals helping the town move forward with dismantling the turbines. Additionally, it asked that Town Meeting support the placement of a question on the May ballot that would seek the approval of voters to take down the machines. Town Meeting members quickly expressed their disgust with selectmen, several agreeing with Mr. Latimer’s earlier statement that “this is an end-run against our bylaws.”
“Look out for the train because here it comes and we are being railroaded,” Daniel H. Shearer, Precinct Six, said. Joseph A. Netto, Precinct Nine, criticized the board for not providing Town Meeting members with details of this new motion until they came into the Lawrence School that night. By being given the information so late, he said, selectmen were not allowing Town Meeting to make an intelligent decision.
“I feel like I’m in a used car dealership and the salesman, being the selectmen, have taken my proposal from last night, took it to their manager and now have come back again,” Robert W. Donahue said. “Instead of giving us a better deal they are using the exact same terminology, but now it is going to cost you $100,000 more.”
Peter L. Clark, Precinct One, said there was nothing productive about “castigating selectmen” any more than it would be to castigate the neighbors of the wind turbines. Still he questioned the wisdom of the selectmen’s plan, arguing that it did not consider any of the other options such as purchasing homes of affected neighbors. He suggested their decision was based solely on “a desire to get it done. If we rush to get it done too fast it leaves people not sure of all the options.”
Mr. Jones took offense to the insinuations that selectmen rushed to a decision, stressing that this was one that “was not made lightly.” He also complained that he was not given time to present details about the costs of those other options to Town Meeting. That led Mr. Vieira to rebuke not only him, but the entire board. “All five of you listen up. When you put a motion on the floor at Town Meeting you have the opportunity to talk. If you want to keep your slips of paper in your bag under the table that is your choice,” he said. “You had the opportunity to make any presentation you wanted.” The dressing down was indicative of the tension that pervaded Wednesday’s session.
When Ronald D. Zweig, Precinct One, attempted to show that the sound in the auditorium, when no one was speaking, was the same decibel created by the wind turbine, Colin P. Murphy, Precinct Six, repeatedly yelled out “whoosh, whoosh” from the back of the room as he imitated the sound of the machines. “I guess I’m not worth anything,” Mr. Murphy said to Mr. Zweig when he returned to his seat. “I don’t know,” Mr. Zweig responded, electing not to engage in the conversation.
Of the few who spoke in favor of the board’s second motion, Julia C. Taylor, Precinct Six, said “selectmen opted to put up the turbines and Town Meeting voted to put them up. We are not to blame for what happened, but we definitely have to take responsibility for what happened and take responsibility for solving the problem.”
With 110 in favor and 91 opposed, Town Meeting ultimately agreed with her and endorsed the idea of giving voters a say. If voters approve the ballot question on May 21, the thorny issue will return to Town Meeting once again as it will need to approve the borrowing of money with a two-thirds vote.