BETHEL — The local Ordinance Review Committee reached a tentative agreement last week on a proposal to lessen key restrictions in the town’s new commercial wind power ordinance.
But landowner Bob Chadbourne, who has closed his lands to recreational use in protest of the ordinance and to highlight landowner rights, said after last week’s meeting that what the panel came up with "would be unacceptable to me."
Currently, the ordinance requires a minimum setback of 2 miles from each wind tower to the closest point on any property line of nonparticipating parcels. Tower heights are limited to 250 feet, and decibel levels at the property line at night may not exceed 25 dBA.
A-weighted decibels, abbreviated dBA, are an expression of the relative loudness of sounds in air as perceived by the human ear.
The requirements effectively ban wind projects in Bethel, according to town officials.
The ordinance was approved at the June town meeting. Selectmen said before the vote was taken that if the ordinance passed they would direct the Ordinance Review Committee to revisit it. The five-person panel has been at work on it since the summer.
In the time since Chadbourne closed his land, the town has heard from several snowmobile clubs, which have said the move would prevent access in and out of Bethel because much of the trail system runs on Chadbourne Tree Farms land. The Bethel Area Chamber of Commerce board also wrote a letter of concern, asking that "middle ground" be sought and the revision process expedited ahead of snowmobile season.
About three dozen people, including many snowmobilers but also people supporting the current ordinance, turned out for last week’s committee meeting.
The snowmobilers reiterated their concerns and support for Chadbourne’s rights.
"Snow is coming, and we don’t have any snowmobile trails," said snowmobiler Jack Cross of Bethel. "We can’t even get out of Bethel. I would think this would be one of your high priorities to get going on it."
Jeremy Morin of Gilead said people love the Bethel area because "they get to roam on thousands of acres. I’ve walked other people’s property my whole life, for hunting, ATVing, snowmobiling, and I’m very grateful. I don’t think (Chadbourne) is being pushy at all."
But others had another view. Sarah DeCato said she was concerned about the possible impact of wind towers, and that Chadbourne’s action "feels in a way that we’re being strong-armed to change this ordinance for one person."
Another resident asked the committee "to protect the entire town, not just one landowner," and take possible health effects of wind towers into account.
In a discussion on altering the ordinance, committee members presented examples of restrictions used by other towns in Western Maine.
Regarding tower height, Chairman Levi Brown noted that Woodstock’s limit is 400 feet, but the state provides no height recommendation. Rumford, Dixfield and Buckfield do not have limits, he said.
Committee member Cheri Thurston, a Realtor, said she would not vote to change the height limit in the current ordinance. She said the presence of towers affects real estate values. Most real estate clients are from away, she said, and they do not want to look at a utility.
Thurston advocated for providing in the ordinance for compensation by wind companies to nearby property owners for loss of value.
Select board Chairman Don Bennett, a member of the Ordinance Review Committee, suggested a 400- or 450-foot height limit.
Brown said height was not an issue for him. "If something is ugly at 200 feet, it’s going to be ugly at 600 feet," he said, and "if you’re going to look at something, then it better be useful."
He said he would agree to 400 to 450 feet, and committee member Patrick Smerczynski concurred, with the three settling on 450. Thurston and committee member Dwayne Bennett stood their ground at the current 250-foot height limit.
Regarding changing the current setback requirement of 2 miles, Brown noted that Woodstock has a 1-mile setback from the property line requirement, Rumford a 150 percent of the tower height setback, Buckfield the greater of 1 mile or 13 times the tower height, and Dixfield 4,000 feet from an occupied building. Dwayne Bennett said Rumford’s requirement is the same as the state recommendation.
Smerczynski said the limit should be a function of tower height, and he suggested 2½ times that height. That requirement, he said, should encourage wind companies to build shorter towers in order to have a lesser setback to deal with.
Brown said greater distances would make it more difficult to get agreement among enough landowners to lease land for a project. He suggested a quarter-mile.
But Dwayne Bennett cited a World Health Organization recommendation of a setback of 18,000 feet for a 600-foot tower, and he said he could not agree with anything less than 1½ to 2 miles.
“I have to go with health first,” he said.
Don Bennett eventually suggested a setback of 4,000 feet from the property line, and Smerczynski and Brown agreed.
The panel found more consensus on decibel levels.
"Noise bothers me the most," said Brown, and Dwayne Bennett said most negative feedback he has heard about wind projects involves noise.
Smerczynski wondered if a decibel restriction was necessary, given the 4,000-foot setback.
Most members eventually agreed to stay with the current level of 35 decibels during the day and 25 at night.