Block Island's blind actions

Last year, Rhode Island's Governor Carcieri entered his State into the race, wanting to become the first to see industrial scale wind turbines spinning off its coastline. His administration's initial step was to select Deepwater Wind as the preferred developer of two offshore projects. The first, a small pilot wind farm of 5-8 turbines to be sited in State waters within three miles of Block Island and the second, a 100+ turbine facility planned for fifteen miles off state shores in federal waters. 

Deepwater wasted no time. In January, the company submitted a request to the New Shoreham Town Council on Block Island for a Special Temporary Permit to locate a mobile radar unit by the Southeast Lighthouse to study bird patterns. The request received little attention and was unanimously approved.

The following month, Deepwater submitted a second request for a Special Temporary Permit. This time, the company was seeking permission to erect a 180-foot tall meteorological tower necessary for assessing the wind resource in the area. The enormous tower proposed near the entrance of the Great Salt Pond on the island's west side would be the first significant physical sign of the company's plan to install turbines near the island. As can be expected, the residents of Block Island took notice.

On February 27, 2009, Attorney Mark J. Hagopian submitted a letter to the Council on behalf of several property owners in Town. His letter raised serious legal questions about the Council's use of Special Temporary Permits in approving Deepwater's requests. Such special permits, according to Town zoning (section 112), are reserved for "circumstances of emergency or other urgent necessity for the public health and safety" and may only be granted for a use or purpose that cannot be accomplished through the normal planning process.

Windaction.org fully concurs with Attorney Hagopian's assertion that "Deepwater's proposal is a run-of-the-mill request for the commercial use of property in a residential zone and is profit motivated". He correctly argues that there is no apparent reason for Deepwater to bypass the normal process and, in fact, the Council's willingness to act on Deepwater's request is not only unwise, it "violates fundamental notions of due process".

Despite Hagopian's letter, and the very vocal public objections voiced at the March 2 Council meeting, the vote was unanimous to grant Deepwater its second Special Temporary Permit.

A quick read of the meeting minutes reveals a level of ignorance about land use law and wind energy on the part of the Council that will almost certainly prove harmful to the residents of Block Island if left unaddressed.

Minutes of the March 2 meeting show that First Warden Kimberly Gaffett claimed to have conferred with the Town's Land Use attorney, Donald Packer, on the question of Special Temporary Permits and was informed they were lawful in this case. There is no record in the minutes that Parker provided his opinion in writing. 

But the more disturbing comments came from Council member Dr. Peter Baute who reacted to whether Deepwater's request represented an urgent, public health necessity. The minutes state:

"Dr. Baute said the application was clearly an urgent necessity critical to the well-being of the town. Merchants and hotel owners, their employees, their families and customers, were critically impacted by the second highest electric rates in the country. The Island has a short season in competition with Newport, Martha's Vineyard, Nantucket and many other seaside resorts, and the electric bills put businesses at an enormous economic disadvantage. The spiking power bills and disappearing profit margins create stress, a medically unhealthy condition. The application for the met tower is one of the first steps to accessing reliable, price-stable power, which can relieve one cause of the Island's stress, and the Council should approve the tower application."

Dr. Baute's comments are more ranting than reasoned. How could a tower erected to gather yearly wind data for the benefit of a for-profit, private entity be deemed a public health emergency? In fact, Deepwater did not install the tower until August. And his claim that high electricity costs and shrinking profit margins  were creating stress, and thus a medical emergency for the town is laughable. We note that no economic analysis of Deepwater's proposal was available to him at the time the vote was taken.

In fact, the true cost-benefit to island ratepayers is still under review. Case in point: Rhode Island's legislature voted this year to require island electricity customers to shoulder more of the wind farm's $20-million underwater cable cost because, according to members of the General Assembly, the island would be the primary beneficiary.

More information about Block Island's wind farm will be made available in the coming year. Windaction.org encourages the residents of Block Island to get the facts on the project and watch the Town Council's actions closely. Wishful thinking and fantasy on the part of the Council are no excuse for corrupting the plain reading of town laws or for substituting blind faith for facts.

SEP 21 2009
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