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Turbine discussions to resume in August

Prior to Falmouth’s May 21 annual Town Election, the Board of Selectmen showed unified support to remove Wind 1 and Wind 1 from the Falmouth Wastewater Treatment Facility. The five-member board unanimously stood together and asked town voters to vote Yes on Question 2, which asked voters to authorize funds to remove the industrial-sized turbines that neighbors say have caused them significant adverse sleep and health effects.

A lot has changed since then. On June 3, Selectman Kevin Murphy completed his term as chairman and was replaced by Brent Putnam. The same day saw Rebecca Moffitt join the board to replace David Braga, who chose not to seek re-election. And in their first meeting since the town voted No on Question 2, selectmen had to respond to an electorate that chose not to fund removal the turbines and to seek out new options to deal with the divisive issue that looms over the town. The discussion tone was markedly different. Selectmen respectfully disagreed with their interpretation of the town election results as well as how to proceed with the turbines, the unity from months ago tentatively in disarray.

The June 3 discussion was a public conversation among the selectmen, and not a public hearing in which the public would speak. That chance likely will come in the future, Chairman Brent Putnam said from the outset.

“The board decided it would be appropriate to have a board discussion before we began to have public comment. This is a preliminary discussion, and the board anticipates future meetings with public comment,” Putnam said.

The board plans to resume public discussion on the wind turbines in August. Meanwhile, the July 1 meeting offered some clues as to what the town may expect next.

Perhaps the most significant development is that the majority of selectmen now seem to think it’s unlikely that they can remove the wind turbines without voters authorizing the removal fees.

“Taking down the turbines in the town, with this board, is not an option anymore,” Murphy said. “Short of a court judgement, I think that ship has sailed. I think we have to be realistic. This board gave it a good effort. That didn’t happen. By process of elimination, we need to look at other options.”

But Putnam said turbine removal remains an option if the state is willing to foot the bill. “People may not want to have their taxes increased to remove our turbines, but maybe the state can give us the money to do it. That may still be an option,” he said.

The board decided to review the remaining options presented last winter from the Wind Turbines Options Analysis Process (WTOP), a study group. They also will review other options not recommened by the WTOP.

Among the options discussed were to operate the turbines with continued curtailed hours (the turbines are now running 7 a.m.-7 p.m.), running the turbines at full capacity, buying and re-selling homes around the turbines with an easesment, or relocating the turbines. No matter what option the board pursues, it will cost the town money, and a return to Town Meeting may be needed in the future.

“I think we need to consider and adopt an operating plan, and we need to consider and develop alternative mitigation strategies and what the steps might be,” Selectwoman Mary Pay Flynn said. “If it’s a curtailment, what would it be? Would Wind 1 operate at fewer ours than Wind 2? Hopefully by the end of the summer, we’ll have a decision made about where we are going to go with this.”

Putnam questioned how long the town can continue to operate the turbines with curtailed hours before it would be losing money. “How far are we from making that decision? We do need to have some long-term operating plan if they are going to remain standing. How far out is that horizon, and how soon do we need to make that decision? These are the questions we need to get the answers to,” he said.

Putnam added some type of curtailment is a must to help alleviate the health complaints from turbine neighbors. “People still have complaints and there are still issues there. But the reality is that people are able to sleep at night now. Some type of curtailment at night, I think, is an absolute must,” he said.

The chairman also discussed the possibility of a “massive” eminent domain, in which the town could purchase and re-sell homes surrounding the wind turbines. He said one consultant estimates there are up to 40 homes that could be impacted, but Selectman Doug Jones questioned the accuracy of that estimate based on the WTOP analysis. Putnam also noted any action in which the selectmen would have to spend money likely will have to return to Town Meeting for a vote.

A notable difference of opinion occurred when selectmen discussed their interpretations of the May 21 annual Town Election. Murphy said the vote came down to dollars and cents and was one against funding turbine removal, while Moffitt felt the vote was one in favor of the town’s current wind energy project and to keep the turbines running because she thinks they will help bring revenue to the town.

“The [town election] vote meant, to me, that folks didn’t want to spend $14 million to tear down the turbines. We need to roll up our sleeves and look at other options,” Murphy said.

“I’ve heard some very creative answers as to what that vote meant,” Moffitt responded. “You will have two facts. I have my fact and you have your fact, and they are completely opposite and both groups will defend their facts.”

The selectmen also differed on how quickly they should act on the issue, but they ultimately agreed to have Town Manager Julian Suso gather more information and revisit the issue in August. In addition, they were reluctant to open another round of public hearings unless a clear path forward was presented to the public. “We’ve done all the meetings and heard from all the experts. We may just have to make a decision,” Selectman Doug Jones said.

Murphy said it would premature to ask the public to speak before selectmen presented a plan. “Once we come to where make a decision, that would be an appropriate time to take the public comment, not to help formulate our decision. Folks know how and have every right to contact us,” he said.

“We want to have something meaningful for people to comment on. It depends on what we get,” Flynn added. “If we get an e-mail or phone call with a golden nugget, we’ll share it,” Jones said.