After nearly two years of rejections and revisions, Aquinnah voters agreed at a special town meeting on Tuesday night to adopt a bylaw to regulate private and public wind turbines. Crafted as an amendment to the townwide district of critical planning concern, the bylaw is the first of its kind to be adopted on the Vineyard.
But approval did not come without a wide-ranging debate that was at times passionate.
“If you believe in global warming, I think you should pass this,” declared selectman Jim Newman.
“I’d like to remind the community as a whole that we’re based on this fossil fuel, and if the price tripled . . . I’m wondering if we’d be thinking with the same priorities we are today,” said James Sanfilippo.
“If we decide to allow windmills in town, aren’t we also endorsing windmills out at sea? So the state can turn around and say, you just want them for your own benefit, you don’t want them for the benefit of the whole state, and that’s selfish,” wondered Elaine Vanderhoop.
The wind energy bylaw gives the planning board the power to grant special permits for wind turbines on a case-by-case basis. Land-based turbines fall into two categories: private and municipal. Private facilities may be either single owner or communal facilities.
by Megan Dooley
An earlier version of the bylaw was rejected by voters twice last year, largely on the grounds that it was too technical and freighted with legal language.
Jeffrey Madison, who was a vocal critic of the bylaw last year, praised the revisions.
“My principal objection at the time [last year] was the fact that I thought the planning board was putting instructions out to people instead of trying to reasonably regulate an applicant for constructing [a turbine],” Mr. Madison said. “I think these are in the spirit of the original Gay Head zoning bylaw in that it allows for the board to use its discretion in giving its approval to a reasonable proposal instead of putting unreasonable requirements on an applicant. This seems to be a good bylaw.”
Others were not so sure.
“I think it puts a huge amount of power in the hands of a very small amount of people,” said Barbara Bassett. “We’re very happy with our planning board the way it is now, but we don’t know who is going to be on it in 10 years.” She said she was concerned that the bylaw might make her powerless to prevent a neighbor from building a wind turbine a short distance from her property. “I think it might be wiser to consider [giving] the power of permission to neighbors instead of just the planning board,” Ms. Bassett said.
Another voter asked how the planning board would make a decision if an applicant’s neighbor was opposed to a turbine request. Planning board member Carlos Montoya said the board would weigh the relative benefits of having the alternative energy source against the intrusive effects on the landscape. “You have to weigh those two and make a judgment call,” he said.
Town counsel Ronald H. Rappaport was called on repeatedly to help sort out legal interpretations.
Still resistant, Ms. Bassett suggested that an alternative to a townwide bylaw might be an Island-wide plan for a wind energy generating facility. “I think that the entire Island should be banding together. I think that we could provide power for the whole Island in one concentrated place instead of so piecemeal like this,” she said.
Selectman Camille Rose, who is also chairman of the planning board and a leading author of the bylaw, said it is the town’s responsibility to have a dependable planning board, because any wind energy development projects, whether local or regional, would rest on the decisions of individual town boards. “The Martha’s Vineyard Commission . . . does not make regulations, they make guidelines,” she said. “So a uniform act that would be responsible for creating and siting a central wind farm isn’t in the power of the commission. All of their regulations come back to the towns to be administered by the planning boards.”
Ms. Bassett suggested solar energy as a less intrusive alternative to wind energy. “Solar is available, it’s a good choice. It’s probably less expensive than a 150-foot turbine,” she said.
But Mr. Newman appealed to voters to take a broad view. “We are one town out of thousands of towns. And if everybody took this attitude, that they don’t want wind turbines, where would we be energy-wise? We can’t depend on oil forever,” he said, adding:
“At least it opens up doors for us to have bylaws on the books. It doesn’t mean that somebody is going to come in overnight and start putting in wind turbines without prior approval. I think the planning board is going to be sensitive to the neighbors, it will certainly be sensitive to the siting. I don’t think it’s going to be as intrusive as you imagine.”
There was further discussion about night lighting and noise issues, but when the vote was called the bylaw was approved 23 to 11, achieving a necessary two-thirds majority by a single vote.
In other business voters approved borrowing $100,000 for various repairs to the town office building, and agreed to take $115,000 from the Community Preservation Act fund to buy a 1.1-acre parcel on State Road from June Noble to be used for affordable housing. Another $4,600 from the Community Preservation Act fund was approved to complete a project to bury overhead electrical wires at the Aquinnah Circle. And a series of transfers were approved as housekeeping matters.
But with four articles to go on a 12-article warrant, Mr. Newman called the quorum into question. When it was determined that there was no longer a quorum, Mr. Rappaport was consulted, who said postponement of the meeting was required.
As a result the special town meeting will be continued on Dec. 1 at 7 p.m. Unfinished business on the warrant includes one article that proposes lowering the quorum requirement.