2012-04-12 / News

Turbine passes ‘aesthetic’ review

Ted Smayda was only one to vote ‘no,’ saying windmill would be ‘totally obscene’
BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

The Conservation Commission this week decided that the visual impacts of the proposed Taylor Point wind turbine were not suffi- ciently objectionable for the panel to issue a recommendation against the project. In an earlier vote that also involved a hotly debated issue, the commission voted to express its support for open space and passive recreation at Fort Getty without any consideration of financial ramifications.

The commission met on April 10. Its charge directs the commissioners to “preserve natural aesthetic areas” in Jamestown, which limited their intensive discussion to the visual impacts of the turbine.

Although some of the commissioners were a little torn, they voted 5-1 in favor of a motion which said, “Recognizing that aesthetics is a very subjective and individual issue, we do not object to siting a wind turbine at Taylor Point on aesthetic grounds.” The “no” vote was cast by Commissioner Ted Smayda, who argued that placing a 400-foot-high turbine at the eastern edge of the Marsh Meadows viewscape “would be totally obscene.”

But the other commissioners, having decided that computer simulations of the turbine were “very effective,” concluded that its visual impacts would not outweigh its “green” benefits. Their recommendation will be available to the Zoning Board for its April 24 review of the variances required for the turbine’s building permit. But the discussions leading up to the vote included shades of grey.

For example, Commissioner Maureen Coleman said she was concerned about the turbine’s aesthetics and the possibility that Jamestown residents didn’t really know the scale of the tower. And, though she voted affirmatively, she said she would have voted “no” if it weren’t for the fact that the turbine would produce green energy.

Similarly, Commissioner Mike Brown said he would have been persuaded to vote against the motion on aesthetic grounds “if we were only proposing it to save money [from the sale of electricity].” But he added, “We can’t stand in the way of progress and green energy. We have to be for it. We live on an island that will be under water [because of climate change] if we don’t do something we about it.”

Commission Chairwoman Carol Trocki was the least swayed by aesthetic concerns. She acknowledged that it would be her wish “to live in a place without any industrial structures, but we all need consumer energy.” She also noted that the Newport Bridge was an “industrial structure,” adding that she was comfortable with the juxtaposition of the bridge and the turbine.

Previous chair Chris Powell urged the commission to vote, first, on his idea of tethering to the Taylor Point site a group of balloons that would approximate the scale of the turbine, but the commissioners declined.

Ellen Winsor, who serves as the Town Council liaison to the commission, said the turbine proposal had placed Jamestown in an awkward position for lack of a formal dialogue on alternative, renewable-energy technologies that would be less visually intrusive. She added, “We seem to want to act and purchase, when perhaps we should study and wait.”

Brown asked Winsor when the vertical-axis turbines she had mentioned would be commercially available, to which Winsor said, “Next year.” Trocki said she agreed with Winsor’s view that the turbine proposal has been driven, to some extent, by a desire to make a statement that Jamestown is environmentally sensitive.

Smayda warned that the technology of the proposed turbine would likely be “obsolete in 20 years.” But Brown had addressed that argument earlier in the discussion, saying the technologies in laptop computers “are obsolete in four years. But that doesn’t mean you don’t buy a laptop.”

In contrast to the difficulty of reaching a clear consensus on the turbine, the commission was unequivocal in supporting a motion to express support for open space and passive recreation at Fort Getty.

The panel had previously voted to ask the council “to embrace the value and sensitivity of Fort Get- ty’s ecosystem” when considering the future uses of the park. The Aug. 17 vote last year was taken with the expectation that the council would select a group of Fort Getty uses for financial analysis at its Sept. 6 meeting. This week’s vote was taken in anticipation of the council’s April 23 meeting, when the council will address the findings of the financial analysis submitted last month by a contractor.

The Fort Getty motion drafted by the commission asked if the panel should support open space and passive recreation at the park “over any financial considerations,” including a reminder that “other town investments in open space have added value to the quality of life in Jamestown.”

The “other investments” were brought up by Powell, who pointed out that Jamestown had readily agreed to borrow $3.5 million at a special Financial Town Meeting as its share of a nearly $10 million purchase of farmland development rights, with the rest of the money having been provided by grants. By preserving the open space, Powell pointed out, the town was trading potential tax revenue for the less tangible benefits of open space.

The commission’s position, which will be submitted to the council by letter and in oral comments during the April 23 meeting, also asserts that revenue production “should not be the guiding principle” for council decisions on the park.

In other business, the commission:

• Called on panel members to sign up for various duties related to the Rhode Island Natural History Survey’s annual BioBlitz, which will be held in Jamestown on June 8-9. The event is an attempt by scientists and volunteer naturalists to tally as many species of organisms as they can in 24 hours on a particular parcel of land. The Jamestown event will be managed by Trocki and Powell, and survey over 600 acres of the island’s farmland.

• Passed an endorsement of a request by Save the Bay to gather some eelgrass from Sheffield Cove for transplantation elsewhere in Narragansett Bay.

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