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Clarence Fanto: Plenty of spin on both sides of Peru turbine issue

Taking Bob Dylan’s word for it that “the answer, my friend, is blowing in the wind,” I decided to examine the wind-turbine controversy engulfing the town of Peru, aptly named for its location high in the hills east of Pittsfield.

Not surprisingly, the end result is enough to make my head spin.

Having covered the prolonged debate in Lenox two years ago over a proposed municipal wind installation, I was no newcomer to the complex subject, though perhaps a novice member of the NIMBY club (“Not in My Backyard”).

Projects in Falmouth on the Cape, Florida in North Berkshire, and numerous others have been mired in divisive debate, with many residents near the installations complaining of noise pollution and health impacts (vertigo, nausea, disrupted sleep), while others claim no such effects. A 2012 state-sponsored study found no negative impacts.

My only direct experience with a turbine complex came while driving across the Nova Scotia-New Brunswick border in the summer of 2012, where there’s a truly massive installation. A bird, caught in the downdraft of the whirling windmills, smashed into my windshield. I felt very sorry for the mortally wounded avian.

The most recent vote in Peru on the Lightship Energy, LLC, project came last Nov. 4, when 59 percent of the voters who turned out supported a two-year moratorium on wind-energy proposals.

Because town-bylaw revisions require a two-thirds super-super majority, the delay – or stalling tactic, as supporters insist – failed by a 20-vote margin.

Now, a zoning board hearing on Lightship’s plan for a five-turbine, 500-foot-high industrial wind farm has been moved from March 26 to April 23 because the company has retooled its project.

It took quite a bit of sleuthing to reach a Lightship executive. The company has no website presence or phone listing.

According to Bill Golden, a Lightship partner based in Boston, the firm – now back in the good graces of the state after failing to file required annual reports for three years – will present a modified plan with “quieter turbines, a very recent model that can have a substantial impact on reducing noise levels.”

Golden, who contends that a majority of Peruvians support the wind-farm proposal, also told me that several of the five turbines would be relocated slightly “to adjust the potential range of the sound.”

“The noise level would be well within what the town’s bylaw and state guidelines require,” he asserted. “We’re trying to do what we can to continue a project that’s going to benefit the town substantially.”

Golden maintained that the town’s noise bylaw is ambiguous and that residents bypassed a chance to tighten the rules in a vote last summer.

“I’m very disappointed, it’s been very difficult to get constructive input from those who have expressed concerns,” he argued. “The discussions indicate no middle ground or basis for working things out. There’s a profound misunderstanding about the impact of wind turbines.”

In Golden’s view, there are no “peer-reviewed, medical studies” linking turbines to health impacts. Moreover, he contended, the initial opposition in Peru focused on the visual appearance of the turbines on the town’s ridge line between Garnet and Haskell Hills.

“There’s a significant amount of hysteria Š misinformation by individuals using junk science, wild stories, unfounded anecdotes,” he declared. “There’s a lot of confusion, people have created doubt and distributed a massive amount of misinformation.”

As for those missing annual reports that landed Lightship in muddy legal waters with the state, Golden described an “administrative oversight Š we’re thankful that before there was any impact on the project, the oversight was pointed out” in an Eagle letter to the editor.

“We’re in good standing now, with no gaps, going back to February 2009 when the company was formed,” he pointed out. “We would have been legally entitled to carry on business anyway.”

Lightship lists its place of business as 115 Curtin Road Extension in Peru, which happens to be the home of landowner Ken Hall, who would be leasing part of his property to the company.

“There’s so much controversy I don’t know what the heck to think,” Hall told me. “We’d be the closest ones to it and I haven’t seen the noise to be terrible.”

Hall said he has checked up on the sound of the Jiminy Peak turbine project during a visit to the nearby Ioka Valley Farm in Hancock, and intends to take up a public offer by a neighbor of the Florida wind farm to hear for himself – that neighbor claims the turbines are mellow.

Hall acknowledged that “he’s a little bit prejudiced” – not surprising since he would get income from Lightship through the lease of the site on his land.

Since many Peru residents worry about health effects, the town has hired a professional acoustical firm to analyze the Lightship project, especially the impact on about 70 homes within a mile of the site. The project would generate $150,000 in extra tax revenue for the town annually, according to the company.

Opponent Susan Masino contends Lightship is a “fly-by-night carpetbagger that might ruin the town” as the company benefits from state grants but fails to follow administrative requirements, resulting in its dissolution by the state last June. The firm was restored to good legal standing after it filed its missing reports all in one day last month – the same day The Eagle published the letter revealing the problem.

Supporters cite the need for clean, renewable energy as well as tax benefits for the town.

Masino, among the leaders of the opposition’s Peru Free Press online at www.garnethillwind.com, says the company’s application is faulty, and argues it should be either withdrawn as the only “reasonable and ethical way forward” – otherwise, the town government should reject it.

Predictions on the outcome of wind energy projects are fraught with uncertainty, so no guesses will be hazarded here.

But, viewed from afar and based on the findings of the hard-working local wind energy research team formed to study the Lenox proposal, Peru residents are well within their rights to examine through a high-powered microscope Lightship’s proposal to generate 15 megawatts of energy annually, with potential state and federal tax credits.

As a strong believer in grass-roots democracy, my suggestion is that the town conduct a once-and-for-all, final referendum, an up-or-down vote on whether the revised project should proceed. And let a simple majority rule.