With the two 400-foot-tall turbines slowly spinning in the background, Falmouth resident Rob Laird talked about climate change, and how he first thought the machines would be part of the solution.
“‘This is great,'” he remembered thinking. “‘This is going to solve lots of problems. And look, it’s right in my backyard. And that’s kind of neat because it’s this new cool thing coming along.’ And then they turned it on. And it wasn’t 20 minutes after that I called Town Hall. ‘Um, this thing is really loud.'”
Laird lives about 1,300 feet from the closest turbine, which helps power the town’s wastewater treatment plant. Since it began spinning in spring 2010, some 40 neighborhood households have complained about things such as headaches, vertigo and sleep interruption which is what Laird experiences.
“We have got to come up with alternative power sources and stop burning fossil fuels,” Laird said. “There’s no question we have to do that. But I’m not sure that putting a wind turbine you can’t make a neighborhood uninhabitable. I think that’s the problem. And that’s what this has done, in affect.”
Falmouth was among the first towns in Massachusetts to install large turbines so close to homes. When people complained, the town tried curtailing their operation when it got really windy. Then, they shut them off at night. They even considered buying out home owners. But now, Board of Selectman chairman Kevin Murphy says the turbines simply need to come down.
“It was a mistake,” Murphy said. “It wasn’t the right project, it wasn’t the right location.”
Initially, complaints about health impacts were met with skepticism, and for three years the turbine issue festered. Today, there are bumper stickers and lawn signs reading, ‘Heal Our Town.’ And many residents who don’t even live near the turbines say they have to go.
“These folks living up on Blacksmith Shop Road they are not NIMBYs, whiners or liars,” said resident Rob Mastroianni. “They were very supportive of the wind energy project with the turbines. But when they got turned on, and they started feeling the ill effects, that’s when they had to unify and tell the town.”
Mastroianni doesn’t live near the turbines, but as a taxpayer, he would have to pay for their removal.
Selectmen say taking them down and paying off the debt will cost the typical Falmouth household about $800 over 20 years. Mastroianni said he’ll pay it.
“If my taxes go up a little bit, that’s a small price to pay,” he said.
Not for resident Joe Hackler.
Amidst a chorus of weed-whackers and clucking chickens, he talked about his time on the Energy Committee, and the work it did over the course of nine years and seven visits to Town Meeting, to help bring the turbines to town. It was decided to put them on a small hill near Route 28, where there’s lots of trees and plenty of wind.
“What we have here,” he said, “is a really excellent development that supports a lot of the towns goals in terms of financial goals, environmental goals, climate change goals. And it’s being opposed by a relatively few people within the radius of the wind turbines who have been remarkably effective at pressing their case.”
Hackler said he’s disheartened by the growing sentiment in town to remove the turbines, and he said that the town’s political establishment has caved.
“That noise you hear in the background is a lot louder than those machines ever are,” Hackler said.
But neighbors typically don’t object to the ‘whoosh, whoosh’ sound of the turbines. Rather, they talk about something called infrasound a low-frequency sound that’s controversial and not well understood.
Selectman Doug Jones explained it as vibration or sound pressure that gets reflected off the turbine itself and towards the homes.
“It’s not something you can hear,” Jones said. “But that’s the thing, they say it just makes them feel sick. And that’s the one that we don’t have scientific evidence to really affirm. But that whole infrasound thing is enough for me to say, I’m not comfortable running them if that’s what it’s doing to people who live nearby them.”
Selectman Murphy said the turbines are in the wrong place for their size, and neighbors are suffering for it.
“When the wind is blowing at the higher rate of speed, it does sound very loud,” he said. “It does create some form some sort of vibration. Whether it has true affects on people’s health, that hasn’t been determined. But it surely has effects on this community and the health of this community. The whole idea is this is dividing our community.”
Resident Megan Amsler is on the other side of the issue. She helped plan for the turbines and then worked with neighbors when they raised concerns. Amsler said there are other potential solutions to the problem that are not being considered.
“From the neighbors’ perspective,” she said, “nothing was going to satisfy them. They wanted to take them down. So how can you sit at a table and come up with options if you’re not willing to compromise in some way?”
Amsler said the sound of the turbines test at 50 decibels about the equivalent of a refrigerator coming on. But when she said publicly that taking them down is unnecessary, she’s attacked.
“People are telling me I am responsible for ruining their lives,” she said. “And I’m like, ‘Actually, this is for the greater good. This project is about not just here, this is a global issue. Energy is a global issue.’ Yes, I’ve been on the energy comm. for all these years. But it’s about doing good for everybody. There was never any intention, I would say nobody ever knew that people would have negative reactions to a wind turbine like they have.”
Since the first complaints were raised in town, state officials have said they’re willing to listen and learn from the Falmouth experience.
Andy Brydges is with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center, which works with Massachusetts to develop wind projects. He said the wind industry and its advocates are paying attention.
“The wind industry is paying attention to the complaints people have had, and are reexamining siting strategies and decisions based on those complaints,” he said. “And I think they’re very focussed on developing projects that will be well received by communities that serves everybody’s interests better.”
Voters in Falmouth go to the polls Tuesday to decide whether the turbines here should come down. If the electorate gives the go-ahead, a spokesperson for the American Wind Energy Association said it will be the first time an American city or town removed its turbines because of noise complaints.