FALMOUTH – The Board of Selectmen will recommend at tonight’s special town meeting that a controversial attempt to declare the town’s twin wind turbines exempt from zoning laws should be sent back to the Planning Board for more discussion.
Monday, prior to the start of the annual town meeting, the board voted 5-0 to recommend a delay on Article 3 of the special town meeting warrant. The article exempts from the town’s windmill zoning bylaw any wind energy system owned by the town, used for municipal purposes and now in existence. The current bylaw prohibits turbines the size of the two, 397-foot-tall towers now at the town’s wastewater treatment facility on Blacksmith Shop Road. If the zoning exemption passes, it would remove the need for the town to obtain a special use permit for the turbines, a process that began last month and was driven by a Court of Appeals decision that ruled Wind 1, one of the turbines, was illegally erected.
Although sanctioned by the Board of Selectmen, the article did not have the support of the Planning Board, which voted 7-0 to recommend indefinite postponement. Board members objected not only to its content but to the rushed manner in which the selectmen brought it forward. Members wanted more time to review the proposed bylaw to see how it would affect the rest of the town’s zoning laws.
“I think it’s very appropriate to do,” Doug Jones, chair of the Board of Selectmen, said about sending the article back to the planning board .
The matter could still get a hearing at special town meeting tonight, however, depending on the result of the vote at town meeting.
The twin turbines have been a source of controversy since shortly after being installed in 2009. Residents have complained about health effects from their operation and have used a number of avenues to try to shut them down but, until this year, have largely been unsuccessful.
Also Monday, before the start of town meeting, the Board of Selectmen discussed moving future town meetings to the auditorium at Falmouth High School.
Town meeting has been in the auditorium at Lawrence School for years, but selectmen said they want to explore relocating it to the high school. It was there once in the past 10 to 15 years, Selectman Mary Pat Flynn said, but town meeting members overwhelmingly objected to the seating arrangements. The high school auditorium is split into an upper and lower portion; the lower portion, where voting town meeting members would likely sit, has barely enough seats for the entire body.
Jones took an informal vote while giving the board’s annual report at town meeting Monday; those present voted 127-75 in favor of a move. Ultimately, however, the location of town meeting is at the sole discretion of the selectmen.
“Let’s try it and see if it works,” Selectman Sam Patterson said.
Also Monday night, town meeting voted without discussion to approve Article 5, a $2 million continuation of the energy services contract that will provide for upgrading energy systems at town-owned buildings.
Projects completed in the first round of funding covered 12 buildings and included new interior and exterior lighting, upgrading heating, air conditioning and ventilation systems and asbestos removal. This round of funding will focus on repairing heating, ventilation and air conditioning systems at Town Hall and some school buildings.
Late Monday night, town meeting voters killed a $300,000 request to study renovations to town hall and were poised to do the same to funding for the consolidated dispatch center before Town Moderator David Vieira adjourned the meeting at 11 p.m.
Both items were included in the capital improvements budget, Article 9 on the annual town meeting warrant. The final vote on the article was not taken Monday night, but an amendment did pass to nix the town hall renovation line item. The money would have funded a feasibility study for the $4.6 million project, which is planned to be done in phases over the next five years.
But town meeting voters seemed reluctant to pour more money into the half-century-old building and were unmoved by plans by town officials to reconfigure the 21,000-square-foot space to make it more efficient for townspeople doing business there and to bring departments now in rented space back to town hall.
“Town hall has functioned for 50 years. This idea that we’re going to make it more convenient to go through the permitting process, to me, is a bunch of baloney,” said Andy Dufrense, who made the amendment to strike the funding from the capital budget.
After this request, town officials planned to ask for $1.2 million in fiscal year 2017, $950,000 in 2018 and $821,000 in 2019 to finish the work.
“If this was my building, I would sell it,” said Joe Netto. “We are constantly putting money into this. … I think the people would like a new town hall in a new location. It’s time to start changing the thinking and start looking for a new location.”
The mood didn’t improve much when selectmen asked for $578,500 to fund construction of a consolidated dispatch center at the Falmouth Police Department.
The town is pursuing a joint dispatch center that would put police, fire, public works and marine dispatchers under one roof to save money on personnel and new equipment, which is needed to replace the aging, obsolete computers at both the police and fire stations.
After the initial proposal to locate it at the Gus Canty Community Center failed at spring town meeting, the town got cost estimates for both the police department and the third floor of the Falmouth Fire Department headquarters. The police station’s cost was about $150,000 less than the fire department’s estimate.
But the selectmen’s purported effort to save money didn’t sway many voters, including Dufrense, who made a motion to cut the funding. He said town meeting’s vote in the spring to put $75,000 toward locating the site at the fire headquarters should have been heeded.
“I think we probably zeroed out these cost savings with all these consultants we hired, “said Matt McNamara. “It’s time to move on, replace the equipment and leave everything where it is.”
Former selectman Kevin Murphy offered a fiery defense of the plan after chastising the selectmen for not defending it themselves. Murphy said combining the dispatch centers is the only way to prevent a takeover by either Barnstable County or the sheriff’s office, which already handles dispatch duties for multiple towns across the Cape.
“Let’s not get our heads in the sand,” he said. “If we don’t take this opportunity now, in two years when we’re still quaffing about it, the state is going to come in and mandate us to do something.”
Donna Mattison-Earls spoke in favor of the police department location and questioned the motives of those who were again objecting to the selectmen’s plans.
“We’ve needed it for a year or more. It’s only going to get more expensive,” she said. “I do believe there’s a lot of spite in this room, and it’s not necessarily from the people at the front.”
The annual town meeting will be reconvened after the three-article special town meeting is concluded this evening.
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