The town of Gosnold has written to the state indicating its willingness to allow wind turbines to be located in its waters, and its determination that it be able to negotiate its own terms for any development, free of interference from the Martha’s Vineyard Commission.

“If our needs are met, we are willing to have a commercial wind project sited in our town waters,” the Gosnold selectmen wrote in a letter to Ian Bowles, Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs, last week. “We understand that, even though we are the smallest community in the commonwealth, we have a responsibility to be part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions. We understand the connection between our small actions and much larger consequences.” To read more from the letter, click here.

The letter, which is published on the Commentary Page in today’s Gazette, frames in sometimes eloquent language the conflicts and contradictions inherent in the intense discussion now swirling around the Vineyard about possible wind turbine development.

“We are at a crossroads. It is difficult to accept such a facility in our community. But not accepting this burden means not taking responsibility for our lifestyle, which includes the use of electricity. We recognize that now and into the future energy must be generated without greenhouse gas emissions. But there are risks in demonstrating new technologies, and are the risks worth it?” the selectmen wrote.

The public comment period ended Monday on the draft Oceans Plan, which provides for as many as 166 turbines, each about 360 feet tall, in two areas close to the Vineyard — one off Noman’s Land, and the other off Cuttyhunk, the outermost of the Elizabeth Islands and home to most of the 80-odd year-round residents who make up the populace of the town of Gosnold.

Gosnold’s position could be problematic for the Vineyard in a couple of ways. First, any turbine development in the town’s waters would be clearly visible from the Vineyard. Second, its assertion of independence calls into question the regulatory powers of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and in particular its recent decision to impose a one-year moratorium on offshore wind developments.

And the law on the matter is unclear. Under its enabling legislation, the MVC was given regulatory power over all lands and waters in the County of Dukes County — which includes the Vineyard and the Elizabeth Islands — with the exceptions of tribal lands in Aquinnah, state-owned land and the Elizabeth Islands.

The wording does not make it clear whether that includes just the Elizabeth Islands themselves or also the surrounding sea.

But Gosnold residents believe they have power over what happens not only on land, but also in waters up to three miles from the islands.

“My understanding is that the MVC doesn’t have any regulatory power in the town of Gosnold or in the town of Gosnold’s waters,” said Mac Davidson, the chairman of the Gosnold selectmen.

“We are members of the commission for non-regulatory purposes, for planning and advisory purposes. But we value our independence and we want to have an independent, distinct voice and we do not want our future determined by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission,” he said.

Ironically, his sentiments echo those of the Vineyard selectmen, who over recent weeks fought to ensure the Vineyard had the final say in wind power developments in Island waters, and that state bureaucrats could not override local wishes.

And while Secretary Bowles appeared to satisfy the concern by telling the Vineyard that it would, through the MVC, have final say in the approval of wind turbines in local waters, Gosnold has opened a second front.

If Gosnold selectmen turn out to be right in their interpretation of the limits of the MVC’s regulatory reach, the commission would be powerless to control large-scale commercial wind generation on the Cuttyhunk site nominated in the draft Ocean Plan.

Yet the impact of a Cuttyhunk development on Vineyard viewscapes would be as pronounced as that of a Noman’s Land development, and considerably greater than that of the other nearby proposed wind farm, Cape Wind, in Nantucket Sound.

The commission is expected to argue it does have power to regulate development in all waters in the county.

But Cuttyhunk is not offering carte blanche to the state and to developers. The selectmen’s letter lays out a long list of deeply felt concerns about the impact that a large wind turbine project would have on the way of life on tiny Gosnold.

“Offshore wind seems to many of our residents a very expensive experiment. Being mariners, and living on the water, they know firsthand how harsh and corrosive the marine environment is. They have pointed out to us that saltwater and electricity are not a good combination. We want to do our part to advance technology and be part of the climate change solution, but we do not want to be part of another failed experiment, and live for years with the consequences,” the selectmen wrote.

They make clear that their support is conditional on a number of demands being met.

Perhaps the most significant is that they want no development on Sow and Pigs Reef, which was the proposed location in the draft plan, because its relatively shallow water made the engineering of the turbines easier.

“Fishing for striped bass and bluefish in this area is a major part of the local economy,” the selectmen wrote. “Hired guides and boats, boarding houses and rentals, meals and services to visiting fishermen, our moorings and marina, boat fueling and repair, employ a significant portion of the population. To protect Sow and Pigs we ask that turbines be prohibited from the reef itself, and a quarter mile beyond. [The section of the plan titled] Fisheries Resources seems to show a low level of resources in and around Sow and Pigs Reef. Generations of Cuttyhunk fishermen would challenge that conclusion and recommend that the designation be amended.”

Before any development, the selectmen have called for a comprehensive environmental impact statement, including the effects of construction on the aquifer which provides the island’s fresh water and the effects of construction and operation on fishing.

The EIS should also consider potential changes to ocean currents, light and shadow impacts, such as “flicker” (of sunlight reflected on spinning turbine blades), the prospect of night lights on the turbine towers interfering with the view of the stars and air flow over the island.

They also seek assurances that the town have a say in the review and approval of any development, and that the developers would be required to put enough in escrow to cover the removal of the turbines after they ceased operation.

And they want money.

“We would like to see a minimum of 50 per cent of project revenue paid to the state by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) be distributed directly to the town,” the letter says.

Details of how compensation would work should be written into the plan.

What the residents of Gosnold definitely do not want, however, is the MVC interfering in their decision making.

“Although we are a part of the County of Dukes County,” the letter says, “our town is very different from the towns on the Vineyard.

“We were once a part of the town of Chilmark, but have minded our own business since the town was separately incorporated in 1864.

“While we don’t want to seem unneighborly, we would like to continue to manage our own affairs.

“For example, we do not have representation on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and do not want any commission making decisions for us,” they wrote.

But they conclude: “If a commercial wind project has to be somewhere in state waters, the town of Gosnold is willing to do its part.”

A spokeswoman for the state department of Energy and Environmental Affairs said on Monday at the close of the comment period 170 submissions had been received.

The final plan is due by Dec. 31.

by Mike Seccombe

Editor’s Note: The following is a letter written by the Gosnold selectmen to Ian Bowles, Massachusetts Secretary of Energy and Environmental Affairs. Malcolm Davidson is chairman of the selectmen. The letter has been edited in places for length.

By MALCOLM L. DAVIDSON

G ov. Deval Patrick, his administration and the legislature are to be commended for the passage of the Massachusetts Oceans Act of 2008 and the drafting of the Massachusetts Ocean Management Plan. In the absence of good planning, development of our coastal resources can happen in a haphazard way, with significant unintended consequences. The thought, study, research, and outreach that went into the plan provide an excellent foundation for the consideration of balanced uses of our natural, social, and economic resources. We often forget that there is a sacred cod hanging in the state house, symbolic of the natural resources upon which this place was settled, upon which we are sustained today, and upon which our future depends.

We recognize that the Ocean Management Plan does not propose to build wind turbines in our town, but rather proposes two possible locations in state waters where siting an offshore wind project would not be incompatible with the Ocean Sanctuaries Act. Any proposed project would be subject to a thorough permitting process.

We have a responsibility to address climate change.

Our town is comprised of a group of islands. We will be severely affected by sea level rise, and more frequent and more intense storms, which are the predicted impacts of global climate change. We have the potential to be threatened by drought, as we have no water supply beyond our small aquifers. We understand that, even though we are the smallest community in the commonwealth, we have a responsibility to be part of the solution to reducing carbon emissions. We understand the connection between our small actions and much larger consequences.

One of our citizens expressed it very well when she wrote to us: “I am very much in favor of using renewable natural resources to generate electricity, especially wind, water, and solar wherever it is not only affordable, but also environmentally sound. Properly placed wind turbines can be one component of the power generation grid, but . . .”

Our challenge is in addressing the “but.”

Wind power is not a new idea. The first windmill on Cape Cod was built in Barnstable in 1687, and the Cape and Islands were dotted with them, grinding grain and pumping water. In 1977, the town participated in an early experiment into modern wind turbine technology with the installation of a 200 kilowatt unit on the top of the hill on Cuttyhunk. The turbine had the capacity of supplying a significant portion of the island’s electric need, but the technology was ahead of its time, was unreliable, and it ceased operation after only a short time. It stood as a grim reminder of the potential for failure of emerging technology for 13 years, until it was finally taken down in 1990. Parts of the turbine and its control building still lie in a heap at the top of the hill.

Nevertheless, the people of the town of Gosnold tend to take the long view. One of our citizens posed the question: “In 100 years will our descendents think that these wind farms were a good idea?” and it is indeed a most important question. We are at a crossroads. It is difficult to accept such a facility in our community. But not accepting this burden means not taking responsibility for our lifestyle, which includes the use of electricity. We recognize that now and into the future energy must be generated without greenhouse gas emissions. But there are risks in demonstrating new technologies, and are the risks worth it?

Offshore wind seems to many of our residents a very expensive experiment. Being mariners, and living on the water, they know firsthand how harsh and corrosive the marine environment is. They have pointed out to us that saltwater and electricity are not a good combination. We want to do our part to advance technology and be part of the climate change solution, but we do not want to be part of another failed experiment, and live for years with the consequences.

The character of our town would be forever changed by a commercial wind project in our viewshed. We would no longer have the deeply visceral and highly spiritual experience of a sunset over the water without evidence of human impact. On the island we feel more closely connected with nature, and away from human things. The sight and sound of manmade objects destroys that experience. The view of the unobstructed sunset is to us, in the words of the popular television commercial, priceless. The hill on Cuttyhunk is 140 feet tall. Industrial scale wind turbines are typically 450 feet tall. With as many as 66 proposed for town waters, the visual impact will be significant. Visitors come to Cuttyhunk for the unspoiled beauty and great fishing, and that tourism is an important source of revenue to townspeople.

Approximately one third of town revenue comes from visiting boaters. We are concerned that an industrial wind farm would negatively affect tourism, which would have a direct impact on the town’s budget.

The full range of environmental, economic, social and cultural impact areas must be thoroughly studied as part of the review process, including:

• Fisheries impacts, such as the potential effects of piles, foundations, and electromagnetic fields on fish populations and species. The towers could bring more fish to the area, but any change to the habitat has the potential to dramatically change the fishery, which is critical to our history, culture, lifestyle, and livelihood. What about impact to the ocean currents?

• Construction phase impacts, such as how pile driving might impact our aquifer.

• Light and shadow impacts; we are concerned about flicker, especially as the sun is setting, and particularly about the lighting of the towers at night. We are blessed with a fabulous dark sky, and an amazing view of the Milky Way, and bright flashing lights would be a significant distraction.

• Air flow over the island; the ocean breezes are an important part of the Cuttyhunk experience, and how a wind turbine array will impact them must be thoroughly understood.

At our community meeting on Oct. 30, Dr. Seymour DiMare observed that as the cod was sacred to Massachusetts, the striped bass was sacred to Cuttyhunk. He noted that it is the bass that tops the church steeple and adorns many a building. The bass fishing clubs on Cuttyhunk and the other islands supported the town for many years, and for the striped bass the Sow and Pigs Reef was a temple, a sanctuary, a sacred place. Charlie Tilton said that he had been fishing on the reef for 70 years, and that it was extraordinarily productive.

Fishing for striped bass and bluefish in this area is a major part of the local economy. Hired guides and boats, boarding houses and rentals, meals and services to visiting fishermen, our moorings and marina, boat fueling and repair, employ a significant portion of the population. To protect Sow and Pigs we ask that turbines be prohibited from the reef itself, and a quarter mile beyond. [The section of the plan titled] Fisheries Resources seems to show a low level of resources in and around Sow and Pigs Reef. Generations of Cuttyhunk fishermen would challenge that conclusion and recommend that the designation be amended.

We have lived with the wreckage of a failed wind project, and do not want the impacts of another. Any proposed project should be required to have sufficient funds in escrow to pay for the maintenance, dismantling and removal of the turbines and associated infrastructure at the end of their useful life, or within one year of cessation of use.

We want to be actively involved in project review and approval.

The town should have an active role in any project review and be a party to any agreements for project siting, approval and operation.

 

Certain impacts can be addressed, such as by avoiding Sow and Pigs Reef and requiring an escrow account for decommissioning. But for the very real impacts that cannot be ameliorated, such as the visual impacts, there should be tangible economic compensation beyond mitigation. With a very small tax base, it is very difficult for the town to maintain municipal services. An additional source of revenue will help us to maintain the natural open space and unspoiled character of the town. We would like to see a minimum of 50 per cent of project revenue paid to the state by the Minerals Management Service (MMS) be distributed directly to the town. If a commercial wind project has to be somewhere in state waters, the town of Gosnold is willing to do its part.

Although we are part of the County of Dukes County, our town is very different from the towns on the Vineyard. Our islands are mostly in their natural state, thanks to the stewardship of some far-sighted families. We have no industry, very little commercial activity, and as a “dry” town, not a single bar. Fishing, farming and boating remain our primary occupations, as they have for hundreds of years. We have fortunately escaped much of the development and other pressures that Vineyard towns face. We were once a part of the town of Chilmark, but have minded our own business since the town was separately incorporated in 1864. While we don’t want to seem unneighborly, we would like to continue to manage our own affairs. For example, we do not have representation on the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, and do not want any commission making decisions for us.

We do not find it reassuring that the plan gives the regional planning agency a role in project siting. We want our town to have an active role in any project approval, including veto power.

If our needs are met, we are willing to have a commercial wind project sited in our town waters.