2011-04-28 / Front Page

Island wind turbine prospects still uncertain

By Phil Zahodiakin

Jamestown’s councilors tackled a wide range of issues on Monday including the ongoing effort to reach a final decision on the proposed, multi-million dollar wind turbine, which drew the most attention among the front-burner issues.

The Jamestown Town Council met on April 25 for nearly three hours. The turbine discussion arose during updates from Town Administrator Bruce Keiser, who said that the town application requesting a National Grid estimate of the costs to upgrade the local grid will be submitted this week.

Keiser also reminded the councilors that the lawmakers representing the island — state Sen. M. Teresa Paiva Weed and state Rep. Deborah Ruggiero — remain supportive of the turbine effort on multiple fronts. “They are utilizing the levers at the state level to fast track the application by working with National Grid Vice President Mike Ryan, who has given them assurances that the application will be expedited,” Keiser said.

A quick turnaround is necessary because the town is facing a March 2012 deadline to construct the turbine or lose the $750,000 stimulus grant awarded for the project. Once the estimate is received, the councilors can decide if the town should issue up to $6.5 million in bonds for the project.

“We are working with manufacturers to get their construction timelines and they say our deadline is very workable,” Keiser said.

He added that he recently testifi ed at a General Assembly hearing on the Rhode Island law allowing municipalities with their own renewable-energy facilities to sell their excess electricity to National Grid at retail rates, which has sparked a Public Utilities Commission investigation of the deal between the grid and Portsmouth.

Although the utilities commission launched its inquiry at the behest of a Newport resident, a ruling against Portsmouth could have implications for the viability of a Jamestown turbine — although the issue might be moot if the turbine tied directly into the town’s wastewater treatment plant. That is because the town could then demonstrate that it was only selling excess electricity, as the state’s netmetering law provides.

“There needs to be an outside subsidy for these projects to be economically viable,” Keiser said. “Senator Paiva Weed fully supports municipal power production and will exercise her influence to ensure that the retail option remains available to Jamestown.”

Keiser also informed the councilors that Federal Airways & Airspace — the consultant preparing an appeal of the Federal Aviation Administration denial of a 400-foot-high turbine tower — “has an [oral] indication from FAA that they will approve [the originally requested height].”

Resident Blake Dickinson, the Jamestown Taxpayers Association president who has long opposed the turbine project, told the councilors that it is his understanding that the FAA does not allow appeals of their determinations.

But the debate appears to be semantic in that the resubmission of the application for a 400-foot tower with new and additional data — showing that the tower’s electromagnetic field won’t interfere with the avionics of descending aircraft — seems to constitute an appeal, even if that is not the actual term on the resubmitted application.

Either way, the cost to upgrade the town’s transformers and fourkilovolt lines remains a huge unknown and an FAA reversal of its earlier decision does not mean the Council will decide if the benefits of the turbine will justify the upgrade costs.

In other business, the Council accepted the resignation letter of Jamestown School Committee member Dana Long. The letter says she is stepping down because of an unforeseen increase in her work travel. The councilors appointed Sav Rebecchi, who was the only other candidate for School Committee in last November’s election, to replace Long.

There was some initial questions about the duration of Rebecchi’s term. However, Town Solicitor Peter Ruggiero said it was his opinion that, under the Town Charter, Rebecchi would serve out the unexpired term until it ends in November 2012, instead of serving only until this year’s election. Consequently, the motion to appoint Rebecchi specifies November 2012 as the expiration date of his term.

Other front-burner topics were addressed by the councilors acting as commissioners on the Board of Water and Sewer. The issues included trespassing around the reservoir and its dam, and the problem of waste from the trespassers’ dogs and vegetation damage from ATVs. The dog waste, which threatens the quality of reservoir water, was flagged at the previous water and sewer meeting.

The commissioners directed Town Engineer Mike Gray, who said that dog-walking at the dam occurs on a daily basis, to draft warning signs with such verbiage as “No trespassing,” “No parking,” and probably an indication of the fine for trespassing on that land.

Currently, the signage is ambiguous, but, according to the town solicitor, the law is not.

“The ordinance is very clear,” said Ruggiero. “It does not allow any recreational or other use of that land, and it provides for discretionary fines [of up to $500].”

The commissioners also agreed to hold a public hearing on the proposed cross-connnection control plan that all Rhode Island municipalities must adopt. Under the plan, new water-service customers and all existing commercial customers will have to install valves to ensure that potable water supplies are not in any way linked to wastewater lines. The commissioners, who formally accepted the plan from Gray, will take public comment on the plan at their May 16 meeting.

One piece of Council business with long-term implications for the town was a Jamestown Taxpayers Association petition requesting the replacement of voice-and-hand voting at the Financial Town Meeting solely with paper ballots.

The petition, which also refers to paper ballots as “secret ballots,” says the change would “increase the number of people voting on an issue and eliminate individuals fear of intimidation or reprisal from his or her constituency. Our current system calls for a verbal yea/nay vote or a hand count which can be erroneous depending on the moderator.”

The petition arguments are a clear reference to the chaos that prevailed at last year’s meeting. Far less clear, however, is the process that must be used to change the voting procedure. It’s much too late to change the procedures for this year, but the town solicitor will report back to the Council with the steps they would have to take to effect the change.

The Financial Town Meeting is scheduled for June 6.

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