Wednesday, February 09, 2011

"I'm all for renewable energy, but..."

The following article is about a battle taking place in my hometown (a few miles from the site of the former New Alchemy Institute), but it's one that is being repeated in scores of communities across the nation. (GW)

Turbine befuddles Falmouth town board

FALMOUTH — Despite coming to the brink of a vote several times Tuesday night, the deeply divided Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals once again needed more time to consider the fate of a town-owned wind turbine.

The contentious hearing process has lasted more than two months and has split the zoning board evenly down the middle.

Tuesday night, one side, consisting of acting chairman Dennis Murphy and Kenneth Foreman, said Building Commissioner Eladio Gore was wrong when he allowed the 1.65-megawatt wind turbine off Blacksmith Shop Road to be built without requiring a special permit.

But Patricia Johnson and Ronald Erickson support Gore, who they said correctly interpreted the town's bylaws as exempting the town from the special permit process because the wind turbine is a municipal use.

The $5.1 million turbine helps power the town's wastewater treatment facility and is expected to produce $440,000 in annual revenue for the town.

After two hours of discussion and with both sides digging in, the board voted Tuesday night to extend the meeting another 20 minutes while Murphy and Foreman tried unsuccessfully to sway the other two board members. Even though the lines in the sand seemed clearly drawn, the board voted to "sleep on it" for a week and will render a decision at its Feb. 17 meeting.

But for Neil and Elizabeth Andersen, the couple who filed the appeal, the waiting is too much to bear.

The Blacksmith Shop Road residents live less than 1,500 feet from the turbine, and they have been complaining about headaches, hearing loss and other quality of life issues stemming from turbine noise for nearly a year.

"Do you know what this is doing to us? I'm gonna kill myself. (Elizabeth) is gonna kill herself," said an emotional Neil Andersen before walking out of the meeting.

While zoning board members say they are sensitive to health topics related to the turbine, their job is to focus solely on whether or not the turbine should have been subject to a special permit process.

Gore cited the "public use" section of the town's zoning bylaws, which states the town can exempt itself from a special permit for "all municipal purposes."

But Alexander Watt and Christopher Senie, attorneys who represent the Andersens and several other neighbors, point to another zoning bylaw specifically for windmills that requires a special permit in all instances.

The problem, according to the zoning board's land use attorney, Mark Bobrowski, is both sides might be right.

The two bylaws are contradictory, Bobrowski said, and create a "bad situation."

"This is a cat chasing its tail," the attorney said.

Erickson said he feels badly for those affected by the turbine, but he said it is his responsibility to put his faith in town officials such as Gore, who have more expertise than he does.

"We're relying on town officials," he said. "I'm sorry this affects so many people but that's what goes on."

That comment didn't sit well with Foreman, who said Erickson is "really passing the buck" and that zoning board members should not blindly accept the word of other town officials.

He also questioned why the town even has a bylaw pertaining to windmills if zoning board members are just going to ignore it. "This is not to say wind energy isn't a great idea," Foreman said. "I'm saying the process here wasn't done correctly."

Murphy agreed and said a special permit process would have offered those living near the turbine a chance to weigh in on details such as where it was built, in an effort to make the turbine a better neighbor.

Mark Cool, who lives on Fire Tower Road and said he feels the effects of the turbine daily, said he and other neighbors know the turbine won't be shut down. Cool said he simply wants to see due process and hopes the town will do its utmost to avoid potential court costs should the appeal fail.

"If there's a way the town can avoid litigation at all costs, it should be sought out because that'll only mean more costs and time," Cool said.

The next meeting of the zoning board is scheduled for Feb. 17 at 6:30 p.m. in town hall.


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