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Falmouth turbine options group: no consensus, but impacts are recognized

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Falmouth turbines aerial WEBEven before meetings began, facilitators of the multi-stakeholder group convened in Falmouth  to address widespread neighborhood complaints about noise from two town-owned turbines realized that the original goal of having group develop a consensus recommendation was too high a bar to aim for.  So, the process was dubbed the “Wind Turbines Options Analysis Process,” with a hope of being able to present two or three options to the Selectmen for consideration before this spring’s Town Meeting.

As it turns out, even that goal was elusive; in the end, the WTOP report summarizes four options, which generally reflect the initial stances of various stakeholder groups: take them down (the unwavering stance of the affected neighbors), run them at full power (the preference of the climate action groups in town and of those representing the town’s budgetary interests), or settle for one of two options involving shutting them down for all or part of the night (which satisfies neither the neighbors nor the climate or fiscal constituents).  In all three of the options that will cost the town money (removing turbines and replacing a third to half of their capacity with solar panels, running them full-time and compensating neighbors, and shutting them down for 12 hours each night), the WTOP recommended that the town seek funding from the state to support the initiatives.

UPDATE, 1/30/13: The Falmouth Board of Selectmen voted tonight to recommend that the two town-owned turbines be dismantled, and for the town to ask the state for funding to help cover the town’s debt for the turbines, and for the MassCEC to forgive the town for Renewable Energy Credits  previously purchased as part of the project financing.  The Selectmen will prepare a warrant article for the April Town Meeting, likely to be followed by a town-wide vote in May.

A few things stood out for me as I read through the 55-page report and some of the supporting materials (available at this link).

First and most striking, even among those advocating operating the turbines at full capacity it appears that the reality of the impacts on neighbors is generally acknowledged.  The report stresses that:

Although most of the discussion of acoustic measurement centered around whether, where, and how often the turbines exceeded DEP guidelines, most members of the WTOP acknowledged that operation within these guidelines would still not result in acceptance of the turbines by affected neighbors, since neighbors stated that compliance with the guidelines did not alleviate the health concerns they experienced.

In keeping with this understanding, the section of the report fleshing out the option of running the turbines at full capacity includes several measures meant to provide compensation for nearby neighbors; while brief, these options include purchasing (and reselling) homes, providing financial compensation that neighbors could use as they see fit (sound insulation or masking equipment, pay utility bills, etc.), and the possibility of the town offering a Property Value Guarantee.

A unique feature of the WTOP group was that it included two members whose charge, unlike all the other stakeholders, was to hold “multiple perspectives;” in essence, their task as individuals was to synthesize all the information, much as the group as a whole would ideally do.  With the group unable to find a synthesis of its own, the conclusions of these members are especially valuable.  

The Multiple Perspectives Statement (one of four stakeholder statements at the end of the report) includes a couple of sections of note:

We voted enthusiastically as Town Meeting members for acquisition of the turbines and promised revenues. In retrospect we should have asked more questions during the acquisition phase that have now been raised because of the adverse impacts on our neighbors. We were remiss as individuals, and not informed enough as a community.

They also stress that among the five core interests to be weighed by both the WTOP and the Selectmen and Town Meeting, “we conclude that (health, safety, and well-being of our neighbors) should be more heavily weighted above the other interests,” with town unity a close second (the other three are property rights and economic interests of neighbors, the town’s commitment to reducing use of fossil fuels, and fiscal impacts on the town). While refraining from explicitly stating a preferred course of action, they continue: “If the Board of Selectmen seeks to end the tumult surrounding the turbines, then there is only one option.” The Multiple Perspectives team also developed a 1-page “tool” with which the Selectmen might evaluate the four main WTOP options. (ed. note: this tool does not seem to be available on the document page noted above)

The third thing that jumped out at me was some of the results of the survey that the WTOP sent to all residents within a half mile and a few others beyond that distance who had filed formal health effects reports with the town. Interestingly, even after several years of formal investigations by the local Health department, which had accumulated health effects reports from about three dozen households, almost 20% of those within a half mile who had NOT filed any complaints reported that someone in their household was negatively impacted by the noise (11 of 54 homes that responded; a little more than twice as many of this group, 25 homes, expressed concern about property value loss). Also striking in the survey results is that fact that very few people (a total of 5 out of the 78 people responding to the survey) report disliking the appearance of the turbines, despite being encouraged to list multiple grievances in their responses. Clearly, noise problems here are not, as is often claimed, rooted in a more general dislike of the turbines.

The final nugget of interest from the survey is that over a third of those who had not filed any complaints would want to be bought out if the turbines were to run at full capacity (20 of the 54 responding), with only a couple of those changing their mind on that if the turbines are shut down for some or all of the night. While this might be perceived as mere opportunism, and is likely driven in large part by the property value fears, it also reflects a significant undercurrent of dislike for the turbines’ impacts, even among those who have been silent until now.

(Ed. note: in considering these survey results, it should be noted that while response rates were decent among those who had filed complaints and who lived within a quarter mile, overall response rates among all those within a half mile who had not previously complained were rather low, about 30%.  Thus, it is entirely possible that the surprising percentage of respondents who have noise issues and would want to be bought out may in part be due to those with problems making more of an effort to return the survey.  Still, the emergence of 11 new households with negative impacts from noise is notable.)

The Board of Selectmen has heard from the WTOP committee, and from the public at large (in a hearing dominated by non-neighbors urging them to remove the turbines), is now considering what proposals to put before the April Town Meeting, which would have to sign off on any action that had budgetary implications for the town (only one of the four options, shutting the turbines down for just the late night hours, 11pm-7am, is budget-neutral).  Meanwhile, one turbine neighbor has filed a Town Meeting article that, if adopted by the Town Meeting members, would call on the Selectmen to put the fate of the turbines to a town-wide vote. (In Falmouth, the Town Meeting is a representative body of several hundred citizens among the 33,000 residents.)  

And amidst all this action, two related developments occurred this week: the trial is scheduled to begin this week in a lawsuit filed some time ago challenging the town’s choice to build the turbines without going through the normal permit process, and Falmouth’s state House representative introduced a Wind Energy Relief Act, with $22.5 million in funding for compensation of individuals and businesses affected by turbines sited in consultation with the Massachusetts Clean Energy Center (several towns in southeast Massachusetts are embroiled in controversies similar to Falmouth’s).

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