Opponents of a Special Town Meeting article regarding two town-owned wind turbines on Blacksmith Shop Road, Wind 1 and Wind 2, packed a public hearing on Tuesday to defend their positions before the planning board.
Requested by the Falmouth Board of Selectmen, the article would amend the zoning bylaw to allow the continued operation of existing municipal wind energy systems in public use districts.
Prior to public comment, town counsel Frank K. Duffy Jr. provided an explanation of the bylaw change and other recent decisions and appeals related to the turbines. Wind 1 is currently inoperative as the result of an enforcement order issued by the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals. The order was issued in response to a request by abutters who have been complaining of health issues caused by the turbines.
On Thursday, October 29, the zoning board will address both abutters’ requests to shut down Wind 2 and the town’s request for a special permit application for Wind 1. The latter turbine was erected in 2010 without a special permit.
“From a permitting point of view, the Town of Falmouth is in sort of a predicament here,” Mr. Duffy said.
He explained that the proposed zoning amendment would allow municipal infrastructure to exist in a public use district, such as that of the two wind turbines. While not all infrastructure “makes the greatest of neighbors,” Mr. Duffy said there should be a place for it to exist.
Whether or not the article is approved, he said, will not solve the issue of whether the turbines are a nuisance to abutters. Cases involving the neighbors will continue and will not be resolved by the zoning amendment.
Town manager Julian M. Suso presented details on the financing of the turbines. Wind 1 was installed at a cost of $5.2 million, for which the town borrowed $4.9 million in municipal bonds payable over a 20-year period. The town, he said, entered into agreements related to the turbine for renewable energy certificates (REC) with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center.
Total payments for the borrowed funds for Wind 1 amount to nearly $7 million. If the turbine is shut down or fails to operate a sufficient number of hours, Mr. Suso said that the town will be required to use general tax revenue for the payments, due to its lack of electricity sales income and renewable energy credits. The cost of a complete and permanent shutdown would be over $2.5 million.
Per the conditions of a zero-percent interest loan for Wind 2, the turbine must continue to operate as an “energy-efficiency project,” Mr. Suso said. If it is shut down, the loan disappears, and the town will owe nearly $5 million with a two percent interest rate.
In a roughly 30-minute presentation, assistant town manager Heather B. Harper described the turbines’ history and details of unsuccessful mediation between the town and abutters. Turbine hours of operation have been changed three times, ultimately to the hours of 7 AM to 7 PM Monday through Saturday.
As the project to install Wind 2 continued, Ms. Harper said, the town “continuously demonstrated willingness to compromise through genuine efforts to engage the neighbors and the town.”
At the conclusion of an eight-month mediation process, she said that there was no substantive resolution—but the board of selectmen continued its “caring and thoughtful” response and was still willing to compromise if need be, Ms. Harper said.
She described the turbines as valuable community assets. As time passes, she said, “The community will change as will community tolerance.”
Several members of the audience voiced strong opposition to the proposed bylaw amendment.
Linda H. Ohkagawa of West Falmouth Highway asked whether the town would be allowed to repeat its “ill-informed rush to install industrial-sized wind turbines” with no public input or site plan presentation. She argued that the special permit process is about a “public fact-finding decision process,” and the town failed to follow it.
“If you support this article, then you will knowingly short-circuit the process,” she said.
Deborah Siegal of Friends Way said that the effort by selectmen to attempt to change the bylaw represents poor government and democracy. Presentations heard that night, she said, contained lies about the turbines.
“The lies build up, and I’ve heard more of them tonight than I have in a long time,” Ms. Siegal said.
Malcolm Donald of Ambleside Driver, West Falmouth, suggested that the bylaw change would be “spot zoning,” which is illegal. Planning board chairman James E. Fox informed him that it was not and that he was referring to a different warrant article.
“We’re not creating a zoning class and we’re not rezoning a property,” Mr. Fox said.
Several residents began to comment on the negative impact of the turbines or other topics unrelated to the zoning amendment and had to be reminded of the purpose of the hearing. Mr. Fox repeatedly told the audience that the board was seeking new information, regarding the Special Town Meeting article.
Thanking the planning board for establishing the original wind turbine bylaw, David R. Moriarty of Precinct 6 encouraged members to continue the process that exists by requiring a special permit for such structures. Mr. Fox interrupted to inform him that the current hearing did not concern permitting, but a proposed bylaw change related to public use districts.
“That’s another hearing for another time,” Mr. Fox said.
Upon being permitted to speak, selectman Samuel H. Patterson refuted claims that the board of selectmen was lying. He began to defend his own responses to interactions with turbine neighbors and was reminded by Mr. Fox that the hearing was supposed to be about the bylaw amendment.
“I don’t think that this board should be underprioritizing the need for our generation to be investing in renewable energy,” Mr. Patterson said, but was cut off by groans from the audience. Still seated, one audience member said, “That’s not even what this is about.”
The hearing was closed, and the matter was taken under advisement. Due to loud chatter as all but three members of the audience rose to leave, Mr. Fox ordered a recess until the board could continue its remaining agenda items.
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