SAVOY – After a decade of debate, approvals and controversy, the game clock might have run out on a commercial wind power project in the town of Savoy.
If so, it’s overtime now for Minuteman Wind LLC, as developers work against the odds to keep the project alive and push back at what they see as missteps by the town.
On April 2, nine days before a renewed special permit was to expire, Minuteman Wind filed an application for a building permit for a 7.5-megawatt installation of turbines on West Hill, near the Hawley line.
Before the week was out, Savoy’s building inspector swatted down the application, faulting it for lacking required information. But the rejection comes with a 30-day appeals period – giving the project one last shot.
“Our intention and plan continues to be to build a wind project on West Hill,” Steven Weisman, one of the principles with Minuteman Wind, told The Eagle.
The group has filed a notice of intent to appeal the denial issued April 5 by Phil Delorey, who serves as Savoy’s building inspector and zoning agent, and it has requested a hearing by the Zoning Board of Appeals.
In Savoy, that duty falls to the Zoning Board, whose members voted unanimously in February 2016 to extend a special permit for two years, after finding that Minuteman had good cause to need an extension.
At the time it received its extension, Minuteman Wind was regrouping after securing its final environmental permits. In 2016 and 2017, Minuteman moved to collaborate with another company, Palmer Capital Corp. of Scituate, only to see that marriage fall apart this year.
Palmer Capital dropped involvement with the Savoy project after failing last year to persuade residents to allow it to increase the size of turbine blades. The change would have increased the overall height of the turbines from 425 feet to about 455 feet – roughly the same as a 45-story building.
Since the town approved a wind power bylaw in 2008, wholesale prices for electricity had fallen sharply and the type of turbines Minuteman planned to use were no longer available.
New economics threw shade on the venture, in other words.
In March, Gordon Deane, Palmer Capital’s president, confirmed that, after months of reviewing the project’s feasibility, his company was dropping out.
That left Weisman and other original Minuteman backers to decide whether to give up or press on.
One of them, Larry Plitch, said in March that proponents continued to believe in the effort they’d dreamed up 15 years ago. “The project is alive and well,” Plitch said then.
A month later, on April 2, Minuteman filed its application for a building permit, racing to beat the April 11 expiration of Minuteman’s special permit.
Minuteman must now overcome Delorey’s finding that the application lacks information required by the special permit.
And, possibly, that it has run out of allowed time under its special permit.
In an April 10 letter notifying the town that Minuteman will appeal, Plitch writes that, under state law, the two extensions granted to date allow the company until May 20 to resume construction, not April 11.
The letter takes issue with the rejection, calling it “gravely mistaken.”
“Minuteman strongly disagrees with the facts and legal conclusions set forth” in the denial, the letter says.
Weisman, a Minuteman partner, says Delorey should have told Minuteman he wanted more information, not denied its application.
“Typically, when a building official determines that a permit application is not complete, the applicant is notified as to what additional information is required to complete the application,” Weisman said in a statement, in response to questions. “But the application is not denied, as it was in this case, within four days of its submission, without giving the applicant an opportunity to provide what was missing.”
John Tynan, a member of the Select and Zoning boards, said the town will schedule a hearing on Minuteman’s appeal and will work with an attorney to navigate the terms of the special permit and other laws. The date of that meeting has not been set.
“There were a lot of steps they needed to take,” Tynan said of Minuteman. “They haven’t done much of any of those things up to this point.”
In his three-page denial, Delorey provided a slew of reasons for not accepting the building permit application. Several involve a lack of information provided by Minuteman.
“There are concerns with issuing a Building Permit at this time due to omissions,” he wrote.
– While the town has told Minuteman it could proceed with work in phases, the application had to lay out a full description of the project. That is missing.
Delorey faults the application for not providing information beyond site preparation work on West Hill and construction of the turbine foundations.
In his denial, he says Minuteman should have noted the planned height of turbines, provided a schedule for construction, and identified roads to be used to haul in construction equipment and the turbines.
Minuteman says in its notice of appeal that it is prepared to provide further detail to the town.
– Instead of the 12.5-megawatt project first envisioned, Minuteman is asking for permission to create a 7.5-megawatt set of turbines. Delorey flags that the scope of the project has “changed significantly” – falling by 40 percent in power capacity.
Minuteman says it has a right, under zoning laws, to proceed with a smaller project.
“The reduction in Project size has been a direct response to the concerns expressed by Savoy residents,” the company says in its April 10 letter. “To deny Minuteman’s Building Permit on the grounds that the current Project will have fewer adverse impacts … would be arbitrary and capricious ….”
– The special permit requires the company to provide proof of liability insurance before work begins.
– Also missing, the inspector notes, are steps to detail the current state of roads, plans for decommissioning (as well as proof that it can pay up to $2 million for decommissioning) and arrangements to keep residents up to date on the project – all conditions of the special permit.
Minuteman says it had planned to provide information at an April 10 meeting with the Select Board that was canceled after the permit application was denied.
Separately, Delorey faulted Minuteman’s application for not fulfilling requirements laid out by the state Department of Environmental Protection.
One called for plans to be stamped by a registered professional engineer.
Another DEP requirement that’s lacking, Delorey said, is a pre-construction meeting held at the agency’s Springfield office. The DEP’s “superseding order of conditions” says no work is allowed until that meeting is held, the inspector notes.
Minuteman says it plans to address DEP issues with the state agency directly.
Harold “Butch” Malloy, owner of the West Hill property where the turbines operate, said he supports Minuteman’s efforts.
“They have my blessing, whatever they do,” he said from the driver’s seat of his pickup, pausing on a trip along a snow-covered Harwood Road from the project site Wednesday.
“I feel bad for what they’ve been put through,” Malloy said. “They only had the town’s best interest at heart.”
In the space of a decade, sentiment in Savoy swung 180 degrees on wind power.
In 2008, two-thirds of residents backed creation of the bylaw allowing it, many enticed by promises of new municipal revenues. At the time, the company estimated that it could provide the town with more than $200,000 a year in payments in lieu of taxes.
But when Palmer Capital asked town residents in 2017 to tweak that bylaw to allow for slightly larger turbines, that $200,000 figure was gone, and local sentiment had turned. Residents rejected that effort at a special town meeting.
Then, rallied by local residents determined to halt wind power, residents in December revoked the bylaw entirely.
That action did not strip Minuteman of its existing special permit, but if the project is eventually stopped, Savoy’s bylaws no longer allow similar ventures.