Finding themselves at a historic crossroad between embracing renewable energy technologies and protecting the Vineyard, Island planning and conservation leaders gathered Wednesday to discuss two legislative initiatives that would put the Vineyard on the front line of an ambitious state plan to build large-scale wind farms on land and at sea.

Gov. Deval Patrick is aggressively promoting the development of green energy technologies in separate initiatives: the draft Oceans Management Plan, which outlines areas to build large-scale commercial wind farms, and the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, which would streamline approval of land-based wind turbines around the state.

The Oceans Act was signed into law last year; rules and regulations are still being formed in the draft plan attached to the act. Language in the law will allow the state Energy Facilities Siting Board to supersede local zoning and the commission, the regional planning agency created by an act of the state legislature some 35 years ago with broad powers to regulate development. This marks the first time that the commission’s authority has been trumped by another state agency.

The draft oceans plan has identified two areas south of Noman’s Land and Cuttyhunk as the only suitable areas in the state for the development of large-scale commercial wind farms. Under the plan as many as 166 wind turbines could be built off the Vineyard, visible from the shores of Chilmark and Aquinnah.

During Wednesday’s meeting sponsored by the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, elected officials and members of the public struggled with a central dilemma: how does the Vineyard, which has some of the best wind conditions in the state, support state wind initiatives while also protecting the Island’s unique character and environment?

While most in attendance said they support wind energy, they also said it should not come at the expense of the Island’s fragile ecosystems, fishing grounds and scenic views.

“If somebody said to the people of Martha’s Vineyard, ‘Fill this area with windmills and you save the world, or even save the state of Massachusetts,’ we might feel a little different about this,” said Dukes County manager Russell Smith. “But it’s not save the world or save Massachusetts, and we’ve got to get a handle on what this would actually accomplish.”

Douglas Sederholm, a member of the MVC, said the Island should explore wind energy, but should have a say in how commercial wind farms are designed and developed.

“A majority of the people in this room support wind power,” Mr. Sederholm said. “But we have to acknowledge there is a power struggle over the decision-making process, one that will determine whether we make decisions about the future [of the Island] or if the state gets to make those choices for us.”

But Kate Warner, founder and former director of the Vineyard Energy Project, urged everyone in the room to look at the big picture.

“I sit here wondering if all this isn’t a euphemism for not in my back yard, and protect our views at all costs,” she said. “Personally I think the future of the Vineyard is very dependent on these sources of energy . . . we’re going to need utility scale [wind] generation.”

She continued: “So are we really talking about picking and choosing the best sites for the Island, or are we saying: not in my back yard; not here . . . I would hate to think we are using terms like special resources and special place as a way of saying we don’t want to participate, go ruin somebody else’s view.”

Tisbury selectman Tristan Israel said he is still learning about the draft oceans plan, although his first impression is that the Vineyard got a raw deal.

“One thing that struck me when I looked at the map is that it looks like everyone else said ‘not in my back yard’ too. I’m not saying we shouldn’t do [these projects] here, but it all seems that all of this has been laid upon us,” he said.

Meanwhile, the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act, still draft legislation, could again allow the state Energy Facilities Siting Board to supersede the commission’s decision-making authority on a wider range of wind turbines, on land and in the sea, unless the commission adopts its own siting standards and has them approved by the state Department of Energy Resources.

The commission currently has not adopted standards. Executive director Mark London said he is confident the commission will do so, although no timetable has been announced.

There was only a brief presentation on the Wind Energy Siting Reform Act on Wednesday; most of the discussion focused on the draft oceans plan, which is nearing completion. Massachusetts Secretary of Energy Ian A. Bowles is expected to sign the final version of the plan by the end of the year.

Although the plan has been in the public hearing stage for the last year, there has been little discussion until recently. Two weeks ago Chilmark selectmen blasted the plan, calling it politically motivated while suggesting the Vineyard was singled out because it has no political clout on Beacon Hill.

Some have also questioned why the entire eastern coast of Cape Cod was exempted from all wind turbines in the plan, and the entire shoreline of Nantucket was exempted from commercial wind turbines on grounds that it is a breeding ground and migratory flyway for endangered birds, including the long-tailed duck.

MVC executive director Mark London said the commission has asked local bird experts Susan Whiting, Alan Keith and Matt Pelikan to review the data and write up their findings in a report; meanwhile a conference call will be arranged next week between Island bird experts and the state office of energy and environmental affairs.

The discussion later strayed into other unintended consequences of the draft oceans plan that may have been overlooked.

Commission member Chris Murphy said language in the plan could open up sections of the Vineyard coastline to large-scale sand and gravel mining operations.

“I want you to think about how little attention [sand and gravel mining] got in this room before we moved right onto wind towers. The argument of saving the world by wind towers I can live by, the argument of saving the world by mining sand to save beaches threatened by global warming, well that doesn’t hold the same warm and fuzzy grip for me,” Mr. Murphy said, adding:

“I think this is something that somebody snuck in there because it makes a huge amount of money for the few contractors who want to do that type of work, and I think we should all be fighting that tooth and claw.”

The state will hold the final hearing on the draft oceans plan at 6 p.m. on Wednesday, Sept. 23 in the Katharine Cornell Theatre in Vineyard Haven. Other hearings are scheduled for West Barnstable, Boston, New Bedford and Gloucester.

with permission, MV Gazette
by Jim Hickey