2012-04-26 / Front Page

Planners delay turbine vote

Commissioners say they lack adequate data to either approve or deny plan
BY PHIL ZAHODIAKIN

The progress of Jamestown’s wind turbine initiative stalled last week, as residents argued that the Planning Commission should “slow down” its review of the multimillion dollar plan. The commissioners agreed, delaying their expected vote on the proposal until their concerns are addressed with additional input.

The commission held its marathon meeting on April 18. If the panel had voted to accept the turbine development plan, the proposal would have proceeded to its final regulatory hurdle: a Zoning Board review.

But the commission decided to ask for additional information, and the Zoning Board’s review of the town’s request for a special-use permit, which was slated for April 24, has been postponed. The permit would allow the turbine to exceed the town’s height restrictions, but the board would examine other aspects of the plan as well.

The meeting, which wrapped up at 10:45 p.m., was a continuation of the April 4 session in which the commissioners tried to identify all of the facts necessary for their vote. Most of those findings, including revisions to the findings, were accepted by the panel during last week’s meeting.

However, the commissioners identified at least one gap that they want to bridge before voting on the development plan – and there might be more than one formal question to emerge from the panel’s May 16 meeting.

It would be premature to guess how the commission will vote once the requested input is provided. But one commissioner, Mike Smith, said his vote would be “no” unless the eventual motion to vote on the plan includes a recommendation for Jamestown to hold a second referendum on the turbine. The first one, which was held on Nov. 2, 2010, asked the voters if the town should issue up to $6.5 million in bonds to pay for a turbine.

The question passed by a 16- vote margin – 1,490 to 1,476 – but the “final decision shouldn’t end with the council,” said Smith, adding that the electorate should have the opportunity to decide the fate of the turbine by voting in an “allday open meeting.”

None of three council members in attendance at the Planning Commission meeting offered any opinion on the idea of a second referendum, but the commissioners were clear about one issue where they want clarification: the proposed emergence of the turbine’s interconnecting cable on Weeden Lane, across the street from the historic Quaker meetinghouse.

The commission will probably seek a description or possibly a drawing of the cable’s transition to the North Main Road power lines. The panel is also likely to advise town staff to provide the Zoning Board with information on:

• The implications of turbineblade intrusion into the air space over a public road (Freebody Drive).

• And the conformity of the turbine’s proposed location with Jamestown’s setback requirements.

Although the revisions to factual findings reached at the April 4 meeting don’t necessarily require any more information, they hint at some concerns. Specifically, the panel decided to revise its findings of fact in such a way that:

• The finding which said the project “is not detrimental” to residents’ “health, safety and welfare” now says the project “does pose risk to residents’ health, safety and welfare.”

• The finding which said the town “found no evidence of shadow flicker effects on nearby residents” now says the town “found minimal evidence” of those effects.

• The finding which said the turbine would be sited in such a way that its impact on undeveloped land would be minimal now refers to the impacts on “open space” instead of “undeveloped land.”

In the only vote taken during the meeting, the panel decided by a 4-2 margin (with one abstention) that the turbine would be inconsistent with Comprehensive Community Plan language specifying the preservation of Jamestown’s rural character as a town goal.

However, when the panel approached its decision on a final development plan vote, the commissioners concluded that they lacked enough information to issue a recommendation to the Zoning Board.

As Commissioner Duncan Pendlebury said, “I’m not sure we have adequate data to proceed to an approval or denial of the development plan. We have a request for consultation with the Rhode Island Historic Preservation Offi ce [on the presence of a turbine in an historic view shed]. We have questions about the data regarding a turbine’s impacts on people’s property values. These are things that are in our purview and we don’t have enough solid data.”

Referring to the meticulous detail in an applicant’s presentation at the outset of the meeting, Pendlebury added, “Here we’re being asked to vote on [a proposal] that’s incredibly important and I’m just not seeing the data we need.”

The commission took public comments before its discussions, and the first person to address the panel was attorney John Murphy, who spoke on behalf of property owners on Freebody Drive and Bayview Drive.

His clients, Murphy said, want the panel to “slow down” and review the proposal as thoroughly as any other development plan. The commission, he pointed out, typically “looks at every shrub” in a plan, whereas the turbine is “one of the largest structures” and its review by the Planning Commission has been brief so far.

“This mammoth structure deserves a full review,” he said.

Murphy’s view was echoed by resident Bill Munger, who said the commission examines “itty bitty details in other site plan reviews and here you’re presented with an industrial structure in an historic district.”

Murphy said that another of his concerns is the turbine’s effect on property values, an issue addressed during the April 4 meeting when the commission was informed that studies don’t indicate any such impacts. But Murphy said the tax assessor has reduced the assessments of Howland Avenue properties near the town’s water tower, adding that the water tower was arguably an absolutely necessity, whereas the wind turbine is not.

Murphy also raised the issue of turbine noise as a safety concern. He acknowledged that there is already “a lot of noise from the [Pell] Bridge, but this is a different type of noise – low-frequency noise – and I’m not sure it’s been given enough attention.”

Resident Jonathan Nelson underscored the issue of low-frequency noise after stressing that he, like most of the people in town, is concerned about the environment. Nelson pointed out that he had installed a geothermal energy system in his home and didn’t expect anything other than a “psychic return” on his investment “unless the price of oil quadruples.”

“The harmful effects of infrasound are well studied,” Nelson informed the panel, adding that the residents of Vinalhaven – a Maine island that he says is home to “some of the some of the greenest people in the United States” – are suffering from “sleep deprivation and headaches” because of the infrasonic vibrations produced by the turbines that they themselves wanted.

“For those who live near the turbines,” Nelson said, “it’s really hell every day when the wind blows.”

Arguments about the “industrial” appearance of the turbine, along with its visibility from much of the island, resonated with the panel. Commission Chairman Mike Swistak said the turbine would be “absolutely inconsistent with a rural view shed” – a position similar to those expressed by a majority of the commissioners, who voted to adopt that opinion.

Attorney Seth Handy, who is representing the town in its turbine efforts, questioned the validity of some arguments against the turbine. He also pointed out that Jamestown voters “made a courageous decision” when they voted for the 2010 ballot measure, adding that “wind is a very benign source of energy” whereas renewable alternatives such as tidal power, which was mentioned as an alternative in public comments, is “very suspect.”

Regarding human-safety concerns and the risk of catastrophic damage to Taylor Point’s wastewater treatment plant, Handy pointed out that the Narragansett Bay Commission sited three turbines beside a major wastewater treatment plant – and that the New England Tech turbine stands beside Interstate 95.

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