Citing diverse issues from bird strikes and toxic unexploded munitions to ancient spirituality and hard economics, Islanders lined up on Wednesday night to express their concerns about the possible effects of planned commercial wind farms near the Vineyard.
Well over 100 people attended the public hearing called to receive feedback on the Oceans Management Plan, billed by the state government as a first-in-the-nation attempt to manage all development in Massachusetts waters. But just one issue dominated proceedings: wind generation.
The draft plan provides for the siting of as many as 166 turbines, each 450 feet high, capable of generating electricity enough to power 200,000 homes, as close as three miles from the southwest corner of the Island, around Noman’s Land and the end of the Elizabeth Islands.
Overwhelmingly, the dozens who rose to speak were opposed to the plan, either outright or in part — although most also asserted their support in principle for alternative power generation.
The evening began just after 6 p.m. in the Katharine Cornell Theatre with a presentation by Deerin Babb-Brott, assistant secretary for Ocean and Coastal Zone Management of the Executive Office of the Department of Energy and Environmental Affairs. At the outset he moved to preempt some concerns of Islanders, and to explain why only two per cent of Massachusetts coastal waters had been earmarked for commercial-scale wind generation — all adjacent to the Vineyard.
He said several areas other than the Vineyard had been identified as potentially suitable for wind generation. But they had been ruled out for various reasons: they were too heavily used for recreational purposes, too deep, or hard rocky bottoms unsuitable for driving the piles for turbines. He noted that under the state’s Oceans Act there was no requirement to specifically consider what he called view-sheds — that is, scenic values.
Mr. Babb-Brott also drew legal distinctions relating to decision-making about the siting of turbines. While the Oceans Plan allows the possibility of wind farms, any specific proposal would have to go through state and federal environmental impact processes, he said.
And he addressed the concern that local planning agencies — especially the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) — could be overridden by the state’s Energy Facilities Siting Board (EFSB). He said the Oceans Act gave the EFSB no new authority, which is legally true, but moot. The Oceans Act opens up areas which previously were marine sanctuaries to potential development, therefore widening the scope of the EFSB to use its pre-existing powers to approve commercial-scale electricity generation.
And finally, Mr. Babb-Brott sought to mollify concerns that the state had not adequately addressed the issue of the economic benefit which would flow to local communities from any development. He said federal environmental policy stipulated that 27 per cent of the royalties paid by a developer should go to the local community, and the state would look upon that figure as a “floor” for developments here.
Then he opened the meeting for comment.
And there was plenty.
Cape and Islands Rep. Tim Madden led with remarks about the need for greater local participation, particularly the MVC. He said the Oceans Plan was unclear on many points, including local economic benefits, and has failed to address the concerns of the Wampanoag tribe. Mr. Madden said he had not heard anyone on the Island who was opposed to wind farms, but that plenty of people were concerned about how the Vineyard had been singled out and about losing local planning control.
Leonard Jason Jr., chairman of the Dukes County Commission and a former, longtime member of the MVC, picked up the theme. He said the Oceans Plan undermined the MVC, the agency that had been instrumental in preserving the community, the environment and way of life on the Island.
“Do you realize what this place would look like without the Martha’s Vineyard Commission?” Mr. Jason said.
County manager Russell Smith also called for more cooperation with local authorities, and paraphrased President Barack Obama to make his point. “Yes we can,” Mr. Smith said. “But it’s we. You have to come and talk to us.”
Bettina Washington, the historic preservation officer for the Wampanoag tribe, said she had done a word search on the draft Oceans Plan document and found the tribe mentioned once, on page eight, under the category “other.”
“And when I type in ‘culture,’ I think the word comes up once,” she said, before giving a brief account of the Wampanoag story of Moshup’s creation of Noman’s Land and the Elizabeth Islands. Pointing to the Stan Murphy murals on the walls of the theatre, one of which depicts Moshup, Ms. Washington said to the tribe the ocean was a living thing, and she found it distressing that the draft plan paid so little recognition to the views and their import to the Wampanoags. “As tribal historic preservation officer, I’m first in line in defense of my people,” she said.
Selectmen from five of the six Vineyard towns delivered remarks that were sharply critical of the plan.
“The West Tisbury selectmen . . . [are] greatly concerned, indeed alarmed at the visual, environmental and economic impact of major industrial wind installations within three miles of this Island,” said board chairman Richard Knabel in a statement. “The scenic vistas across water are an integral part of the history, culture, and economy of this town, and the town through its own zoning process, and through the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, has moved to protect the shore areas from unreasonable, inappropriate, and intrusive development. All of this is jeopardized by the draft Oceans Management Plan, as currently proposed,” he also said. (The full text of the West Tisbury statement is published on the Commentary Page in today’s Gazette.)
Chilmark selectman Warren Doty spoke about the need to specifically define what economic benefit the Island might receive from a commercial wind farm off Noman’s and Cuttyhunk. He suggested a 50 per cent cut in electricity rates here and a defined share of royalties.
Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said he found it “incomprehensible” that Island waters were the only place between here and the New Hampshire border where turbines could be sited.
He suggested the Island was the victim of a not-in-my-backyard mood in more populous areas of the state, and that the decision had been made to “shove it down here, where there are just 15,000 voters.”
Oak Bluffs selectman and board chairman Greg Coogan underscored the unity of Island selectmen in guarding local control; he noted that 35 years ago the state set up the MVC to protect the Island from unwanted development. Islanders had used the power wisely “and now they want to take it away,” Mr. Coogan said.
Members of the MVC joined the chorus.
Linda Sibley said the recently completed Island Plan called for a reduction in energy use of 50 per cent; she wished the state had as ambitious a target for reining in energy use.
Douglas Sederholm described the EFSB as “a group that is dedicated to energy development.” He too said royalties should be at least 50 per cent.
Peter Cabana, who is also a member of the Cape Light Compact, said the future for wind turbines is further offshore, in deeper water, where the wind is stronger.
Commission executive director Mark London detailed an array of deficiencies in the draft plan, among them the economic value of vistas.
Coastal tourism yields $8.7 billion annually, and the second most popular activity after swimming was ocean viewing, Mr. London said.
And while the current plan limits turbines to two areas, there is nothing to stop them from being strung all along the Island’s south shore in five years’ time, Mr. London said.
He also said the MVC had rerun data used to formulate the state’s draft plan, and the results suggested other areas in the state are in fact suitable.
There were many other critics.
Noted natural history expert Susan Whiting came with a map showing bird populations and flyways. She said the data on birds used for the draft plan is inadequate, and she is working with two other Island bird experts, Matt Pelikan and Alan Keith, to provide something better.
Michelle Jones, a member of the Martha’s Vineyard/Dukes County Fishermen’s Association, questioned the impact on the livelihood of fishermen.
Carlos Montoya, a member of the Aquinnah planning board, posed a key legal question: the Oceans Act says the final arbiter of turbine siting is the EFSB, but the Martha’s Vineyard Commission enabling act says appeals of its decisions go to court. Which would prevail?
Testimony went on for more than three hours. Jim Feiner, a Chilmark real estate broker, said he had already lost one sale because the potential buyer feared looking out on 160 wind towers.
Robert Gilkes of Edgartown said ordnance of all kinds left over from the time Noman’s was a bombing range was scattered across the sea floor through a substantial part of the area earmarked for development. He feared the consequences of disturbing it.
David McGlinchey, executive director of the Vineyard Energy Project, which is pushing for an Island power cooperative, said community-based projects should receive preference in the leasing process.
And Suzanna Nickerson, who said she find turbines offensive, was the one person who actually said “not in my back yard.”
But Chris Fried and Chris Babb had a different view.
Mr. Fried, an energy engineer who lives in Vineyard Haven, said he was not convinced by the sudden unity of Island officials on the issue. Mr. Fried said he was happy to leave state and federal authorities with the final say in the matter.
And very late in the evening, Mr. Babb of Edgartown rose to back him.
The Vineyard, he said, should take the lead and show the state and the country that this community understood the perils of climate change.
“It is an opportunity, not a burden,” Mr. Babb said.
The hearing ended about 9:30 p.m., and Mr. Babb-Brott promised further consultation in the months ahead.
There is little time for it. The final oceans management plan is due for release on Dec. 31.
with permission, MV Gazette
By MIKE SECCOMBE