CHARLESTOWN – Dueling sound experts only added to the cacophony at Charlestown Elementary School Wednesday night, but a Superior Court hearing Friday morning may bring a little more clarity to the town’s long-running wind turbine dispute.
The second session of the Zoning Board of Review’s hearing on Whalerock Renewable Energy LLC’s request for a special use permit was dominated by testimony about the sound the large turbines would generate if they are built.
Christopher Menge, a senior vice president and community noise analyst for Harris Miller Miller & Hanson of Burlington, Mass., presented a report that was prepared for Lawrence LeBlanc, the Charlestown developer who has been engaged with town officials for three years in his attempt to build the turbines.
Menge’s methodology was disputed by Stephen E. Ambrose, a Maine-based acoustics, environmental sound and industrial noise control analyst brought in by John Mancini, the town’s special counsel for the Whalerock hearing. Mancini also represents property owners bordering LeBlanc’s site north of Route 1.
As was the case at the first hearing on May 21, much of the evening was occupied by legal jockeying between Nicholas Gorham, Whalerock’s lawyer, and Mancini and Peter Ruggiero, town solicitor.
Gorham frequently questioned whether the town had any legal standing in the case after Superior Court Associate Justice Kristin E. Rodgers dismissed lawsuits filed by the Town Council and the group of abutting property owners. They had tried to keep Whalerock from receiving a zoning board hearing, the final step in the town’s project approval process. The lawyers also questioned the credentials of the opposing witnesses, but the board eventually deemed both Menge and Ambrose qualified to give their opinions.
The legal standing of the town and the neighbors may be clarified Friday in Rodgers’ Wakefield courtroom, when she will hear a request from Ruggiero to have the town granted legal standing to offer a case and present witnesses. Ruggiero argued in his motion that the town’s status as an abutter, through ownership of a piece of property on King’s Factory Road, grants it legal standing despite the dismissal of the council’s suit. The site is bordered by King’s Factory Road to the east and East Quail Run to the west.
Rodgers is also expected to clarify her order that the zoning board hear the case by June 14, the date specified in her April 10 decision. She will be asked to grant an extension to the proceedings. The board is limited by the availability of the school, required as a meeting space because the first two sessions of the hearing have drawn nearly 300 spectators.
The hearing is scheduled to continue Wednesday, June 19, at Charlestown Elementary at 7 p.m., with Gorham planning to present additional expert testimony about real estate concerns and infrasound, the low-frequency sound emanating from large structures like turbines. Any additional meetings necessary will be scheduled that night, said Michael Rzewuski, zoning board chairman.
Menge told the board he conducted sound studies in August 2010 that found the turbines would generate less than 50 dBAs, the decibel measurement they are restricted to under town ordinance. He said the readings were at 43 dBAs at the nearest property lines to the turbine sites, and 41 to 42 at the nearest homes. Those figures include background noise from insects, tree frogs and passing Route 1 traffic at night, he said.
“The turbine sound will generally be audible when sound levels are about the same or higher than the background,” he said, reporting the results of his instrument measurements.
Several board members said they were skeptical about those figures.
“At some point, insects go to sleep,” said Raymond Dreczko. “A turbine doesn’t.”
Menge said a difference of about 5 dBAs louder than what the average person was used to hearing from a source would be noticeable, and a difference of 10 dBAs would sound twice as loud.
While the originally agreed-upon rules between the lawyers and the board called for Whalerock to present its entire case before opponents would be heard, Ambrose was allowed to testify Wednesday after Mancini agreed not to cross-examine Menge and not require him to return, quelling Gorham’s objection to Ambrose’s testimony. Mancini requested that Ambrose be allowed to testify because he would not be available on June 19.
Ambrose told the board that personal observation is much more valuable than leaving instruments unattended to measure sound because of the variances in acoustic and atmospheric conditions. He offered tables from other New England turbine sites he has studied in which the sound measurements he took were higher than those projected by unattended instruments.
“I go out and listen as a neighbor would listen,” he said, describing his study of a Maine turbine site in which he and a partner took readings in a nearby house and slept there to experience the actual conditions.
“You can’t understand unless you go to their house and sleep in their bed. It’s not pleasant,” he said.
The hearing began with a surprise address from LeBlanc, who drew oohs and aahs from the audience when he suggested he would withdraw his request for the special use permit if it was proved that the turbines were harmful to the environment or health of nearby residents.
“I proposed this to create safe, clean energy from the power of wind, which this site has in great abundance,” he said, insisting the project would meet all federal, state and local standards.
“It’s a big investment, and I want to do it right. If it’s not safe, I will withdraw it,” LeBlanc said.