Almost a decade after wind energy companies started eyeing Fort Fairfield, town officials are moving toward adoption of regulations that some developers find too restrictive.
At a hearing this week, about a dozen Fort Fairfield residents testified in support of a proposed ordinance that would regulate wind power in the town and attempt to prevent the impacts experienced in communities such as Mars Hill, where a 28-turbine wind farm was built in 2006.
Some Fort Fairfield residents argued that the town should go further, such as extending a proposed one-mile setback of turbines from nonparticipating landowners.
“I agree with the ordinance, but I think the distance from homes should be greater,” said Beth Hotham, a registered nurse who lives on 45 acres and raises beef cattle. “I would suggest 20 miles or more,” she said, eliciting laughter and applause.
All in all, said members of the committee who drafted the ordinance, the regulations would accommodate “orderly wind energy facility development” while protecting the public from noise, light and other industrial impacts.
“I don’t know if it’s perfect or not, but it’s pretty good and I think it would be hard to match,” said Dick Langley, a retired lawyer and chair of the committee.
Fort Fairfield’s Town Council will vote on the proposed ordinance Wednesday, Sept. 16. The ordinance lays out a local process for approving potential wind development projects, and standards and restrictions.
Wind turbines would have to be located at least one mile from property lines of landowners not participating in the project, ensuring that homes would be at least that distance away from the turbines.
Langley, who along with others on the committee visited Mars Hill, said the proposed one-mile setback would largely prevent “shadow flicker,” the rotating shadows cast by the blades turning in the sun. Shadow flicker has been a complaint among Mars Hill residents who live close to the mountain, according to Langley. With a one-mile setback, however, “that generally is not an issue,” he said.
Langley said the ordinance also goes a long way toward reducing excessive noises emanating from wind turbines, another ongoing issue in Mars Hill, where local resident Mike Gosselin built himself a sound-proof room to sleep in.
The ordinance proposes a somewhat complicated formula for setting sound standards for any wind project. Basically, Langley said, average noise levels at the edge of a proposed turbine’s participating property line would be measured before development, as a baseline, and noises from the eventual operating turbine could only increase by five decibels.
The ordinance also contains measures addressing the town’s viewsheds, groundwater protection, erosion control and blasting.
Representatives of potential developers voiced concerns that the ordinance might discourage wind projects in Fort Fairfield, where a 100-turbine project was once envisioned by Horizon Wind, now a part of EDP Renewables. EDP Renewables is applying to build what would be New England’s largest wind farm in the unorganized territory west of Bridgewater.
“Some of the language is more common in moratoriums,” said Katie Chapman, project manager at EDP Renewables.
“Some examples of the wind power prohibitive elements include low-frequency sound, one-mile setbacks from property lines, and what seems to be town authority to decommission the project,” Chapman wrote in comments submitted to the town. The one-mile setback proposed in Fort Fairfield would require an average of 71 landowners to agree on a location for a turbine, which could be “impossible,” Chapman said.
“A nonprohibitive standard would be turbine tip height from property lines and roadways, and three times tip height from residences,” Chapman said. That means if the turbines are 400 feet tall, the minimum distance from homes would be around one-quarter of a mile.
Sue Jones, a Freeport resident whose company Shamrock Partners is trying to launch a three-turbine community wind project on farm land in Fort Fairfield, urged the town council to reject the ordinance and instead rely on the state’s standards. The state model includes a setback equal to 150 percent of the height of turbines (just over one-tenth of a mile in the case of a 400-foot-tall turbine) and allows noise of up to 55 decibels when a turbine is at least 500 feet away from a residential dwelling.
“A one-mile setback in particular is overly restrictive and will kill our project,” Jones said. She argued that the community project could bring Fort Fairfield some $30 million in economic growth, in jobs, contracting, landowner payments and property taxes, and worried that a restrictive ordinance could have a ripple effect regionally.
“When a town enacts a one-mile ordinance, it will have a carry-over effect on other towns. That may be some people’s intent here.”
Other members of the Fort Fairfield community who have mulled the possibility of large- and small-scale wind projects over the years said they could see the ordinance allowing new turbines that have limited impacts.
Phil Christensen, a former U.S. Department of Agriculture professional, was one of the landowners courted by Horizon in 2007 and 2008 and one of the 11-member wind ordinance committee.
“There ought to be a balance” to “protect people’s investments in their property, their health and their safety, and also give people an opportunity to make money from this resource,” Christensen said in 2008.
“I think the ordinance does that,” he said after the Sept. 8 public hearing.