FALMOUTH – The town’s Board of Health decided Monday to ask selectmen to reconsider the operating hours for the town’s municipal turbines, but stopped short of ordering them to either change or expand the devices’ eight-hour downtime.
The 5-0 vote came after more than an hour of debate about how much evidence the board has concerning sleep disruption of turbine neighbors and if it is enough to justify an order, which would carry a legal authority that could be challenged in court.
Ultimately, a majority of the board decided the evidence wasn’t there to back them up and force a change to the turbines’ current off times, which are 9 p.m. to 5 a.m.
“This is something we’ve come up against again and again. We don’t have sufficient facts to stand up against a legal argument,” said Board of Health Chairman Jared Goldstone.
The Board of Health had been turbine opponents’ best remaining battleground in their quest to limit or end the turbines’ operation, and the lack of a more decisive action Monday night was met with scorn from the attendees. Several turbine foes left in the midst of the conversation as it became more apparent an order was not forthcoming. Others tried to interject questions and comments about the vote, only to be reminded that the Board of Health had voted to accept no more comments on the issue at board meetings.
The two 1.65-megawatt turbines at the town’s wastewater facility on Blacksmith Shop Road have been the focus of an ongoing debate since their installation. Neighbors complain about noise and health issues and others say the town must run them to recoup their installation costs and provide a source of renewable energy.
The Board of Selectmen created the current operational scheme to try to balance neighbor complaints with the town’s financial needs. The turbines had been running for 12 hours a day, but that was deemed insufficient to generate enough income to offset operating costs.
The 16-hour operation, determined to be the “break even” point for their costs, was a compromise from the suggested 20- or 24-hour operation, which would have generated enough revenue to create a mitigation fund.
Board member Gail Harkness started the meeting with a motion to return to a 12-hour shutoff period, but she later was the only board member to vote in favor of the action.
“Until there is hard evidence that the turbines are not causing health effects, I believe the Board of Health must act on behalf of the community and declare the turbines a nuisance,” she said, reading from prepared notes.
A review of other sound ordinances at both the municipal and state level across the country showed that most entities consider 7 a.m. to be the end of nighttime hours, said Goldstone. The beginning of the so-called quiet hours varied, but tended to be closer to 10 p.m., according to his cursory review.
“Selectmen have chosen eight hours for a financial reason, but the hours don’t make a lot of sense based on the quiet hours of the night,” he said.
The Board of Health will suggest, in a letter to be sent this week, that the Board of Selectmen review its decision and change the off-hours to something more in line with Goldstone’s research. If they decline, however, there seemed to be little will toward a more stringent action without additional information.
“What would be the evidence we would use to say not eight hours, but 10 or not 10 but 12 hours. … I don’t see it,” said board member George Heufelder.
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