Chilmark ZBA confirms permits for two farm wind turbines

After three hours of emotional debate on both sides, the Chilmark zoning board of appeals (ZBA) last Wednesday upheld the town building inspector’s decision to issue building permits for a pair of large wind turbines, planned for two well-known and highly visible commercial farms off South Road.

During a standing-room-only public hearing at the Chilmark Community Church, the zoning board voted 4-1 to endorse building inspector Lenny Jason’s decision last month to issue permits for wind turbines at Grey Barn Farm and Allen Farm, without hearings of any sort, pursuant to state law allowing such action under certain circumstances for commercial agricultural operations.

In a separate decision, the zoning board decided not to refer the two turbines to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission (MVC) for review as a development of regional impact (DRI).

Mr. Jason issued the building permits under a state agricultural exemption that allows an applicant to bypass the town zoning bylaws as long as they use more than 50 percent of the energy produced by turbines for commercial agriculture.

Because of this exemption, the zoning board did not review the turbine proposals, and there was no public hearing or public comment invited on the two proposals. Both turbines also fell under the 150-foot threshold that would automatically trigger a review by the MVC.

Earlier this month, a group of neighbors filed two separate petitions appealing the building inspector’s decision while asking the zoning board to refer the turbines to the MVC, prompting the zoning board to schedule the January 19 public hearing.

The lack of a public review for the turbines formed the center of the debate Wednesday.

“What you have in front of you is a permit already issued for what will be the tallest structure in Chilmark,” said Eric Turkington, former state representative for the Cape and Islands and an attorney representing the Cobbs Hill Road Association, which opposes the turbine at Grey Barn Farm.

“You approved two turbines before, but after a review for a special permit, during which you asked questions and gathered information as part of the decision-making process. None of that will be part of this decision-making process if you uphold the building inspector’s decision.”

Jonathan Eddy Adler, co-owner of a property next to Allen Farm and one of the petitioners who appealed Mr. Jason’s decision, tried to illustrate the size of the wind turbines.

“I’d like to take moment so everyone can understand just how large this proposed turbine is . . . the turbine would be higher than a 14-story building as it is proposed right now, and will be in the middle of an open space with 36 neighbors around it,” he said.

But others argued the turbines were a healthy addition to the town that produced clean, sustainable energy while helping two popular commercial farms.

“We have taken responsibility for our actions as producers, not only for the next generation and their needs, but the future for many generations to come. It takes guts to really try for sustainable agriculture, it takes being aware,” said Molly Glasgow, co-owner of Grey Barn Farm. “Being aware that life is not only about an ideal of beauty, but a reconsideration of beauty.”

Clarissa Allen, co-owner of the Allen Farm, apologized to her neighbors for not better explaining her plans to them. But she also said the turbine will not be significantly disruptive to her neighbors, and she argued that the turbine is important for the future of her farm.

“The proposed turbine will be in the geographical center of the north side of our farm. It has no bearing on our close neighbors . . . this is a family farm, and the issues surrounding sustainability are incredibly important to us,” she said, adding:

“We want people to become proud of this, to be proud that Chilmark did something with this. And I hope this is a beginning.”

Although the hearing was intended to be about the building inspector’s decision to issue the permits, the discussion often veered to broader questions, such as the development of wind turbines on the Island.

Mr. Turkington cited reports that several larger wind turbines on the mainland, including several in Falmouth, have caused neighbors to experience a range of health problems.

“I live in Falmouth where they just put a few of these. Some of the people are fine with it, some people’s lives have been ruined,” Mr. Turkington said. “People get sleep deprivation, headaches, ringing in the ears, inability to concentrate, motion sickness . . . they call it wind turbine syndrome.”

Peter Vincent, an Edgartown attorney representing the Cobbs Hill Road Association, argued that the agricultural exemption, if followed to the letter of the law, would allow for other types of large scale energy projects.

“Does this mean that all other things that produce electricity [for a farm] would be exempt from getting a special permit? There are gas turbines, water, hydraulic that would disrupt our streams, and even something as ridiculous as a nuclear power plant, would all those not require a review?” Mr. Vincent said.

But several other speakers objected to some of the criticism, on grounds that the two turbines were relatively small and would have more of a positive effect on the environment than a negative one.

“I have to think that Mr. Turkington’s comments were a distraction, because he was talking about the turbines in North Falmouth that are larger, megawatt turbines,” said Jim Athearn, owner of Morning Glory Farm.

Last June, Mr. Athearn erected a 150-foot wind turbine on his Edgartown farm adjacent to the seasonal farm store he operates on Edgartown-West Tisbury Road. Mr. Jason, who is also the Edgartown zoning officer, approved that turbine without public review under the agricultural exemption.

“I have the very model these farmers are considering, and I think people have had a chance to experience it. This is a very quiet turbine,” he added.

“The Allens and the Glasgows need to get on with their farming, and I support this,” said Rebecca Gilbert, owner of the Native Earth Teaching Farm off North Road. “Farmers are already busy without figuring out all this cutting edge stuff. I thank them for giving the town an opportunity to move into a better future.”

In the end, the zoning board’s decision was largely swayed by a report from the firm of Tighe & Bond, which the selectmen hired earlier this month to explore the central question of whether the two farms will use more than 50 percent of the energy produced by the turbines for commercial farming.

The 20-page report with two appendices, which the zoning board received on Tuesday, came to the clear conclusion that a majority of the electricity produced by the turbines would be used for farming. With that in mind, Mr. Jason urged the board to support his previous decision to issue the permits.

“Not only am I allowed to give [the applicants] the permits, but I am required to give the permits. The town spent $7,000 for that report to determine they will use more than 51 per cent, and it’s right there, they made their 51 percent,” Mr. Jason said.

After the public hearing closed, zoning board member Frank LoRusso moved to refer the Grey Barn Farm to the Martha’s Vineyard Commission. His motion failed when none of his fellow board members seconded it.

Just before the final vote, Mr. LoRusso pleaded with his fellow board members to vote against the motion to uphold the building inspector’s decision. He said the agricultural exemption could allow a farm to keep adding turbines indefinitely, as long as they continue to increase their need for electricity.

“Based upon our decision that means they can come back and do three more turbines . . . we have the potential of changing the whole character of our town,” Mr. LoRusso said.

Another motion to refer the turbine at Allen Farm failed by a 1-4 vote, with only Mr. LoRusso voting in favor. Board member Chris Murphy, also the chairman of the MVC, then made two separate motions to affirm the building inspector’s decision to issue the permits for the turbines.

Both passed by a 4-1 vote. Peter Knight, chairman, Wendy Weldon, Barbara Armstrong and Mr. Murphy voted in favor. Mr. LoRusso voted against each time.

An appeal of the ZBA decision is only possible in Superior Court.