A divided Martha’s Vineyard Commission last Thursday clashed over whether the technical language in a recently adopted Aquinnah wind bylaw is in synch with a townwide district of critical planning concern (DCPC) approved over 10 years ago.
In the end the commission voted 7-6 that the new bylaw — drafted by the planning board and approved by voters at a November town meeting — does not conform with the guidelines of the townwide DCPC.
But in an unusual twist, the commission agreed to respect the work that has already gone into drafting the town bylaw, and will consider changing the guidelines to match the town bylaw at another public hearing scheduled for Feb. 18.
It’s actually a backward way to do things. The bylaw should have come to the commission for review before it was voted on by the town. But what’s done is done, and commission members said last week that they will take steps to help the town fix the problem.
Aquinnah is the only place with a DCPC that covers the entire town; as a result the wind energy bylaw must be written as an amendment to the DCPC.
The issue involves technical language. Commissioners last week noted that one section of the DCPC guidelines do not conform with the new wind bylaw, which could lead to unwanted development and legal challenges. The language prohibits construction that would alter the town skyline.
Some commissioners said the new bylaw would allow turbines to be built in areas that interrupt the skyline, also pointing out that the bylaw fails to prohibit turbines from the area around the Gay Head Cliffs and Moshup Trail, two areas of cultural and environmental importance to the town.
“If you don’t want wind turbines at the Cliffs or Moshup Trail, in the regulations of [the DCPC] you have the power to prohibit them,” commissioner Doug Sederholm said. “But under this bylaw you could possibly allow them in those areas . . . it’s your town, but because they have such great value . . . then you ought to say you or do or don’t want them.”
Carlos Montoya, temporary chairman of the town planning board, said the new bylaw would allow turbines only by special permit, giving the planning board control over size, location and aesthetics. He read excerpts from the bylaw. “Remember this did go to town meeting; and it was pretty obvious what the stakes were,” Mr. Montoya said.
He also noted the new wind bylaw only covers turbines up to 150 feet tall, both for individual homeowners and groups of residents who want to build turbines together. There is currently a ban on all wind turbines over 150 feet on the land and 220 feet over the ocean, under another DCPC, the commission’s Island Wind District.
But James Prichard, a board member for the Vineyard Conservation Society, said he would like to see the bylaw specifically address the issue of turbines near the Cliffs or Moshup Trail. “We don’t presume that we should step in and try to tell Aquinnah what they should be doing. But if we get a chance we will,” he said.
Commissioner Bill Bennett said he worried the town bylaw was not strict enough.
“My concern is the cumulative effect of a lot of windmills that will radically alter the skyline, so I would not be willing to change that part of our guidelines . . . one or two windmills may be novel, but once you have dozens of them the whole skyline will be changed radically. I think it’s important to stick with our guidelines,” he said.
But Leonard Jason Jr. said the commission should respect the wishes of the town planning board, as well as voters. “Can somebody show me where in this [wind bylaw] it says an application can willingly alter the skyline . . . are we calling the Aquinnah planning board irresponsible? . . . you have a whole town who says this is good,” he said.
Commissioner Kathy Newman, who is from Aquinnah, agreed.
“I just want to remind people what Aquinnah looks like. This tiny little town has prevented trees from being cut down, and kept McMansions from being built. I think we should remember that before we starting talking about anyone allowing out-of-control windmills,” she said.