A hearing on the Town of Falmouth’s application for a special permit to continue operating one of its two wind turbines, located on Blacksmith Shop Road, opened at a zoning board meeting on Thursday, October 29.
The identical 1.65-megawatt turbines, known as Wind 1 and Wind 2, were both erected without special permits—the first, in 2010, and the second, two years later. Building commissioner Eladio S. Gore approved their construction on the grounds that the turbines fulfill municipal purposes, which is allowed by right in public use districts. However, in response to an appeal by turbine neighbors, a Massachusetts Appeals Court ruled this year that the town should have obtained a special permit for Wind 1.
At the opening of Thursday’s hearing, attorney for the town Diane C. Tillotson asked the board members to keep open minds and rely on the information presented at the public hearing.
“[Do] not rely on whatever material is extraneous to the public hearing and apply the criteria set out in the zoning bylaw dispassionately and objectively,” she said.
Ms. Tillotson introduced Stephen Wiehe of Weston & Sampson engineering firm, who would be the first of three speakers to present information at the hearing.
A turbine the size of the town’s is capable of producing 3,500 megawatt hours of electricity per year, Mr. Wiehe said, which is the equivalent of about 2,400 tons of carbon that will not be released into the atmosphere as a result. It is capable of providing electricity to about 332 homes annually.
“There are statistics and reasons why this was built,” he said.
In Falmouth, Mr. Wiehe said, the reason was a policy to generate clean and renewable energy. The town was one of few at the time that had a bylaw regulating the installation of windmills, which was adopted in 1981. Those regulations were replaced in 2013 by a bylaw titled, “Wind Energy Systems.”
Mr. Wiehe said that representatives of the turbine’s manufacturer, Vestas, were immediately concerned when noise complaints arose after Wind 1’s installation. The company’s lead design engineer was sent from Portland, Oregon, to assess any issues, he said, but discovered that there were none.
“There were some minor issues that they had identified during the shakedown and the mechanical completion,” he said, but those were corrected.
Mechanical testing had already been conducted to ensure that the sound made by the turbine was no louder than expected, he said, and there was no argument about the data collected.
Mr. Wiehe explained that he is responsible for ensuring that any necessary permitting is completed prior to construction—which is why he filled out the town’s special permit application and submitted it to the town engineer, George Calise.
“He went around to his departments and they determined that you don’t need a special permit because this is municipal use… just like they didn’t need a special permit for the Wastewater Treatment Plant,” he said. “I’ve come to you now because the court says it’s appropriate and you need a special permit.”
Addressing the neighborhood impact of the turbine, Mr. Wiehe explained how the engineering design of the structure was adequate to protect the public from harm of mechanical failure, ice throw and noise.
Falmouth’s zoning bylaw deems sound levels below 40 decibels at the nearest property line acceptable, he said. Because the noise created by Wind 1 is less than that, Mr. Wiehe continued, no sound testing was conducted prior to its operation.
If ice freezes on the turbine blades, he said that there is a potential for ice throw—in other words, the turbine could continue spinning and throw ice and snow a significant distance. However, Mr. Wiehe argued that the risk is minimal, and there have been no such known occurrences in its five years of operation.
The turbine is secured by a fence with a locked door, preventing the public from unlawful access, he said.
“It’s not a place that the public should be anyway,” Mr. Wiehe said, then invited the board to ask questions.
Board member Paul Murphy asked whether Mr. Gore had reached out to anyone for opinions prior to allowing the turbine’s installation by right. Mr. Wiehe said that he had reached out to town planner Brian A. Currie, adding that Mr. Gore had initially denied the project.
Assistant town manager Heather B. Harper was allowed to speak and said that the town counsel was also consulted on the matter. There was even discussion at the time of presenting before the zoning board, she said, but Mr. Gore determined that it would be allowed as a municipal use project.
Referring to a section of the bylaw regarding accessory use structures that exceed 50 feet, board member Kenneth Foreman questioned the ”accessory nature” of the turbine.
“Based on your description, it’s generating 3.5 million kilowatt hours [of electricity] per year. What is the use required for the [wastewater treatment] plant itself?” he said.
Through a study, Mr. Wiehe said that it was once determined that the plant was using about 2-3,000 kilowatt hours per year.
“So this is generating quite a bit more power than that,” Mr. Foreman said.
Chairman Kimberly Bielan asked Mr. Wiehe to elaborate on the issue of ice throw.
While most ice would fall at the base of the turbine, he said, there have been instances elsewhere in which ice accumulated on turbine blades has been thrown at “appreciable distances.” By that, he said, “I mean a thousand feet, I’m sure.”
Technicians are taught to make observations of turbines before approaching them, he said, and they are not to approach structures if there is ice and snow on them. The ice will fall off in a matter of time. Mr. Wiehe explained that there are sensors within the turbine that will cause a shutdown if there is any type of imbalance in the blades.
When asked about the state standards for noise, Mr. Wiehe said that state regulations limit noise to 10 decibels above background noise, to which the turbine complies.
“Do these generally attract lightning strikes?” Ms. Bielan said.
Lightning strikes have happened, Mr. Wiehe responded. However, he said that they are rare, and that most electricians say that no amount of grounding would protect a structure from lightning 100 percent.
Mr. Foreman referred to a diagram that had been presented relating to snowfall, questioning how relevant the graphic was to the Town of Falmouth.
“My concern… is that one of the turbines is pretty close to Route 28. It’s always been my concern that if there is ice throw, that someone driving on that road could be hit and it could cause an accident,” Mr. Foreman said, requesting further information on the probability of ice throw under various conditions. Mr. Wiehe said that there is no further information available.
An attorney of several turbine neighbors, Christopher G. Senie, told the board that Mr. Wiehe issued a proposal to the town in March 2008 to conduct an acoustical study before Wind 1’s construction. If there is a town bylaw that limits sound to 40 decibels at the property line, he said, “How are you going to know if you will comply with it if you don’t do a sound study?”
By 2008, Mr. Senie said that he thought that Weston & Sampson had commissioned multiple sound studies for other projects. He added that Mr. Wiehe had not only filled out a special permit for Wind 1, he submitted it to the town engineer with plans marked “for permitting only.”
“I would like to know, does Mr. Wiehe think it would have been prudent to [obtain] a special permit?” Mr. Senie said.
Mr. Wiehe said that in his normal course of business, he fills out a special permit application whenever he thinks it might be necessary—but it was determined in Falmouth that such a permit was not required, as the project was for municipal use.
The hearing will be continued at a zoning board meeting on Thursday, November 19, at 6 PM.