A Hummel Report Investigation
Wind energy became a hot topic last year as the Deepwater Wind project off Block Island played out before the Public Utilities Commission and the General Assembly. In 2011, the focus has shifted to the mainland, where many local communities are grappling with the pros and cons of wind turbines coming to their own backyards - literally. Jim Hummel, who has been tracking the issue since last fall, finds that ground zero for that discussion has been North Kingstown.
Hummel: `` Wind energy was a hot topic last year as developers proposed an offshore project know as Deepwater Wind. Well this year the focus shifts here to the mainland as many local communities are dealing with the pros and cons of having turbines in their own backyards.
This week the focus - and ground zero - is North Kingstown.
Chances are you've seen New England Tech's wind turbine just off Route 95 in Warwick, standing 150 feet tall.
Or the state's first turbine at Portsmouth Abbey, just a bit larger than New England Tech's.
Last year the town of Portsmouth built one between the high school and Route 24 that is double both of those - at 336 feet.
The turbine proposed on Stamp Farm, adjacent to Route 2 dwarfs all of those - coming in at 427 - as tall as the old Industrial National Bank Building in Providence.
``There are no other towers of this size in Rhode island.''
Jeff Zucchi is leading the charge against a proposal by local developer Mark DePasquale that had residents packing this town council meeting in mid-December - and last week's meeting of the Planning Commission - which will ultimately decide if the project gets the green light.
Zucchi: ``I had no idea how wind turbines worked. I thought they were windmills. And now I look at these things and they are power plants. No matter how you want to talk about them, they are power-producing, generating plants, that's what they are.''
Depasquale will lease the Stamp Farm property for $5,000 a month and provide them electricity from the turbine. The rest he will sell to National Grid.
Opponents have cried foul on the process. DePasquale's original proposal was unanimously rejected by the zoning board in August. The town council then took the zoning board out of the process, directing the Planning Commission to draft a new ordinance that the council adopted six weeks later. And that has resulted in the owner of Shartner Farms - which is directly adjacent to the proposed turbine project - suing the town.
DePasquale sat in on the meetings drafting the ordinance, which now sets no height restriction and carries a 260-foot setback, far below what's recommended by both the state and the turbine manufacturer, Vestas. At a meeting in November, we saw Planning Commission Chairman Richard Pastore ask the developer's lawyer his opinion about handling testimony from expert witnesses.
Zucchi: The developer was in with the Planning Commission helping them craft this ordinance.
Hummel: ``Do you see that as a conflict of interest?''
Zucchi: `` I do. I mean frankly, I do. I can't see how a developer would tailor an ordinance for a town that they're trying to have an application in that would be anything but lax.''
Hummel: ``Simply put, does it pass the smell test?''
Hummel: ``The setbacks, the height, no restriction, you've heard that criticism that it's
catered to Mr. DePasquale?
Pastore: ``That's not the case.>>
We caught up with Pastore before last week's meeting. He says the developer was only one of many with input on the new ordinance, including engineers and geologists. Pastore also defended the 260-foot setback.
Hummel: `You were quoted as saying the setbacks are what lawyers had developed. Were you misquoted on that?''
Pastore: ``Somebody said that Vestas had a 1,500-foot setback, which I think will be discussed today. But let's assume that's what they're saying - I've seen industries present setbacks and things like that basically as a CYA attitude. I think we have to look at that more carefully.''
Hummel: ``Do you think 260 feet is appropriate?''
Pastore: ``I do think it's appropriate.''
DePasquale recently took out a full-page ad in a local paper trying to counter concerns about health and safety. His spokesman is David Darlington.
Darlington: ``The new ordinance is much more onerous than the old ordinance, so I'm not sure.''
Hummel: ``Not on height restrictions and setbacks, because there is no height restriction.''
Darlington: ``Well, but Jim, you have to look at the old ordinance. It set 400 feet but it allowed for you to get a variance, so the 400 feet was just a marker that was there and they required you to go into the town and ask for a variance.''
Hummel: ``But you had to have people say 400 feet - put it in perspective and discuss it. Here there is no height restrictions, it could be 500, 600, 700 feet, could it not?''
Darlington: ``The new ordinance requires us to look at a much larger area as far as the neighborhoods go and what the impacts will be; there's a lot more jeopardy in the new ordinance for wind turbines than there was in the old ordinance.''
Last month the Town Council got an earful from a roomful of residents on a topic that wasn't even on that night's agenda. One by one - by one, by one they came to the microphone - some had never attended a council meeting before. One resident held a map that he gave to the council.
Resident: ``Not a single member of the Planning Commission or the Town Council lives near the turbines.''
And that brings up the Not In My Back Yard Argument and whether wind turbines are a good fit for North Kingstown - or any residential community.
Hummel: ``What about that not-in-my-backyard argument?''
Zucchi: ``It's more of a NIT argument. Like Nit Wit. Not In My Town. Because what this really comes down to, it changes the characteristics of why we came to North Kingstown.''
The main question many are asking: What's in it for North Kingstown? The opponents want to know aside from the argument for green energy, who benefits besides the developer and the owners of the land where he wants to put the project?
Hummel: ``Should the town be getting something out of this?''
Zucchi: ``We have been buying open land, open space in our town for quite a long time. We've been trying to maintain the characteristics of North Kingstown, and now we're promoting wind energy. The two don't jive.''
And they want to know where town leaders fit into the equation.
Zucchi: ``We didn't know about it and we thought that you guys, the elected officials, were here to protect us. We didn't know *we* had to watch it.''
Hummel: ``Just this week the town put a moratorium on any new wind turbine projects - but that won't affect the current application here at Stamp Farm, which moves forward. Next week we'll take a look at the economics of wind energy and whether the state should be getting more involved.
In North Kingstown, Jim Hummel, for the Hummel Report.''