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Wind turbine issue is deja vu all over again

As the late Yogi Berra famously once said, “This feels like déjà vu all over again.” Falmouth can certainly say that about the wind turbine issue.

Once again, we are looking forward to a Town Meeting dominated by the subject, with one article proposing zoning bylaw changes retroactively legalizing the town’s two turbines at the wastewater treatment plant, and a second article laying out dire financial consequences if we don’t.

Many residents have strongly held opinions about wind power. But nobody can argue with the fact that these wind turbines, because of their location, have been a financial and legal fiasco for the town.

The neighbors who have opposed them, citing them as a nuisance causing adverse health impacts, have prevailed in every forum where they have argued their case: in Superior Court, at the Appeals Court, at the Supreme Judicial Court, and even at the Falmouth Board of Appeals. This in spite of the town’s expenditure of hundreds of thousands of dollars in legal counsel fees.

It is long past time to settle the matter, to find a solution that leaves the neighbors in peace, makes the town whole, and lets everyone move on. And for that, the state agencies that sold us on these turbines have to step up to the plate.

There are two turbines at this site, dubbed Wind 1 and Wind 2. Each has its own story, and its own set of complicating issues.

Wind 1 the town bought from the state’s Clean Energy Center (CEC), borrowing $5 million to do it. This was done at the state’s urging, with many financial inducements, and with the assurance that there would be no negative impact on the abutting residents.

This assurance has not proven correct. The town has gone back to the CEC, and has obtained concessions and financial assistance that have helped mitigate the costs of maintaining, operating, and amortizing the borrowing for this turbine, up to now.

With the current radical change in circumstance since the Board of Appeals decision, with Wind 1 not operating at all, CEC’s earlier assistance to the town is not going to be enough.

The town should go back to CEC with a simple demand: you sold us this turbine, you should buy it back. A car or appliance dealer is required by law to take back a car or appliance that doesn’t work the way it is supposed to, and to refund the purchase price. That same principle should apply to state agencies peddling wind turbines.

CEC has acknowledged they made a mistake here. Along the way the town has made its own mistakes, but the root cause of the problem was the initial decision made by CEC to sell us these turbines, knowing they were to be located this close to neighboring residences.

This agency receives millions of dollars annually from the electric ratepayers of the commonwealth. Recently CEC expended $113 million of ratepayers’ money to build a dock in New Bedford harbor to service the now defunct Capewind offshore wind project. CEC can afford to fix the problem in Falmouth that they created.

Wind 2 was a “gift.” Using federal stimulus funds, the state Water Pollution Abatement Trust gave the town $5 million to buy and install Wind 2. The premise was that this was “a loan that is not to be repaid…in essence, a free project for the town,” as a press release at the time stated.

But when the Falmouth selectmen in 2013 asked the trust to forgive the loan in 2013, the answer was no. You have to keep operating it, the trust’s lawyers said, or you must pay the money back.

The course of action on Wind 2 is pretty clear: ask again. The three trustees of the trust are the state treasurer, the secretary of administration and finance, and the commissioner of DEP. All three positions are now occupied by new people with no commitment to defend the agency’s previous position on this matter. They should be asked to review the matter, and forgive the loan.

Our new state senator, Vinny Demacedo, is an experienced legislator with a great record of serving the communities in his district. He, together with our capable representatives Tim Madden and David Vieira, the selectmen and town manager, should be beating down these agencies’ doors in Boston to get them to accept their responsibilities to get this issue resolved and to make Falmouth whole. Falmouth’s taxpayers should not be paying for the state’s mistakes.

(Eric Turkington is a Falmouth lawyer. He represented Falmouth and the Islands in the state legislature from 1989 to 2009)