2012-04-26 / Editorial

Let’s not degrade island’s beauty

VIEWPOINT
BY TED SMAYDA

Jamestown is being challenged in its efforts to balance the civic needs of its residents – public services (schools, police, etc.) and a sustainable habitat that meets recreational and aesthetic needs. The proposed wind turbine and unresolved Fort Getty projects threaten the existing positive balance.

Consider Jamestown as a landscape. Its natural beauty and attractions lie in its insular character, surrounded by the views and vistas that Dutch Island and East and West passages provide, with Beavertail, Fort Getty and Fort Wetherill providing access to surrounding waters.

Jamestown traditionally has acquired desirable properties for preservation, an environmental consciousness reflected in the ongoing restoration of stone walls and related activities vivid throughout the island.

So why my concern? The desirable balance appears to be at hand.

I fear the special, natural landscape features of Jamestown will be degraded by the turbine and Fort Getty projects – to overall aesthetic detriment. I suggest that adherents of the turbine and Fort Getty initiatives in applying an economic lens to justify their support have turned erstwhile “luxuries” into necessities. The necessity invoked? To provide income to the town that will reduce the tax rate. The luxuries converted? The fiscal benefit will outweigh environmental and aesthetic uses (“luxuries”) and losses to residents. If Jamestown were Central Falls or some other community in dire economic straits, one might be sympathetic with that argument. But Jamestown is not in that category – it is fiscally healthy. Not only is the prospective income a relative pittance – the additional tax burden theorized to result lacking that income is seemingly well within reach of the bedroom community that Jamestown has become.

The economic lens that adherents apply in support of these projects is also a “beauty-to-duty” argument, positing that we are duty bound to give greater weight to income-producing ventures over accompanying aesthetic disruptions and losses. Further, the aesthetic losses, if not of trivial value, are replaceable or compensated for by other attractions. The aesthetics being applied here is much deeper than the pejorative view that it is a cultivated taste or a “soft,” subjective extension of art appreciation to the natural environment. One may not like a Picasso painting and prefer a Rubens – that judgment is rooted in a complex visualsensory network that has its own set of terms.

Aesthetics is not taste: The acquired appreciation or dislike of, for example, a scenic view – the Newport Bridge, or a particular building. Aesthetic taste is malleable. Is the economic lens being applied to justify the turbine and Fort Getty projects, with the promise of reduced taxes, changing community perception of the aesthetic value (need) of nature?

We have all been moved aesthetically by environmental experiences – those “aah moments” – and share the innate capacity to distinguish among environmentally harmonious, stunning and unattractive settings. Would Fort Getty be as attractive if the dump were contiguous? Would Mackerel Cove be as popular if a bridged breachway into Sheffield Cove was built to minimize the frequent storm-induced flooding and washout of beach sand onto the highway? I think we would agree those sites would then become tarnished.

I believe the intuitive, aesthetic capacity that we share is evident in the summary of the discussions of the various panels and commissioners charged with evaluating the turbine proposal reported by Phil Zahodiakin in a recent issue of the Jamestown Press. The reported tepid support of the commissioners, overall, and their various concerns over aesthetics, suggest this reflects their intuitive recognition that something is amiss with the turbine proposal. The reported constraints on the terms of reference for the various commissions are also noteworthy. The Conservation

Commission is restricted to comments on aesthetic impacts; the Planning Commission is not charged with reviewing visual impacts beyond the project site; the Comprehensive Community Plan does not discuss wind turbines in its charge to protect the rural and historic features of Jamestown. The splintered terms of reference among these panels opens the possibility that significant issues are not being properly evaluated creating data and information holes and gaps affecting the decision making process. A joint session of the various commissions should be convened to exchange views and overcome the limited terms of reference imposed on each commission.

The excellent visualizations of the turbine placement available reveal its presence will be visible and conspicuous throughout the region south of Route 138. This 400-foot, clinically white, metallic tube statued like a mechanical pinwheel, blades sharp edged, longer than a football field by a third, and towering above the surrounding landscape stolen from below, will be overwhelming. Particularly obnoxious is its obliteration of probably the finest view in Rhode Island, and certainly Jamestown, looking eastwards across the scenic Marsh Meadows, the contiguous farmland and the Windmill Hill historic district. The habitat stretching along North Road beginning with the off-ramp from Route 138, moving passed the Watson and Windmist farms and continuing south past Fort Getty to Beavertail has the scenic beauty and historical and aesthetic appeal worthy of a request for its designation as a federally approved heritage corridor. The turbine and its proposed location would signifi- cantly compromise that option.

The turbine initiative should be suspended and denied approval. However, efforts to develop a green energy plan should continue, following Ellen Winsor’s recommendation that a committee be formed to evaluate alternative, renewable wind energy technologies. The rapid development of wind tech- nology justifies this recommendation. The proposed installation, most likely, is already antiquated. Efforts to develop a green energy plan for Jamestown based on better technology, a better economic model and at an aesthetically more suitable turbine site, should follow appropriately scaled economic and environmental analyses. We need to determine whether a wind turbine would indeed provide the aspired green energy benefits in harmony with the intrinsic environmental features and aesthetics of Jamestown, or whether other forms of green energy practices might be more appropriate.

The author is a member of the Conservation Commission and is a professor at URI’s Graduate School of Oceanography.

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