The Edgartown zoning board of appeals (ZBA) rescinded a special permit for a private wind turbine in the Turkeyland Cove neighborhood this month. The complaints of neighbors, and ZBA members’ observation of noise and visual impact, contributed to the decision.
In 2008, the ZBA unanimously granted James Snider Jr. a special permit to erect a wind turbine on his property at 20 King Point Way. The permit came with the condition that it be “reviewed in one year to ensure that the system is being maintained and functioning properly,” according to the permit.
Once the wind turbine began operating, neighbors who at first did not oppose the idea, described the noise as occasionally like an empty box truck rumbling down the road, a machine mulching trees, or a helicopter landing.
This week, a Times reporter observed the turbine in moderate wind. Whirring and whining sounds were clearly audible near the turbine tower. But there were no loud mechanical noises like those described by residents, during the short observation.
In response to the concerns, each member of the ZBA visited the neighborhood several times over the winter to experience the sound and the visual impacts.
The permit review happened on April 6, and the five-member board voted unanimously to rescind the permit.
Mr. Snider has until April 27 to appeal the ZBA decision. He declined comment when asked this week if he intended to challenge the decision in court.
Gary Harcourt, of Great Rock Windpower, the Martha’s Vineyard company that installed and maintained the turbine, questioned the process that led to the ZBA decision, and said the decision is a terrible blow to the renewable energy industry on the Island.
The decision illustrates an increasingly common aftermath of both small- and large-scale turbine installations.
Neighbors and licensing authorities, who had received assurances that the turbine would be quiet and unobtrusive, had decided to give it a try. But once the turbine was up and running, they found the noise generated by the turbine a constant irritation. They also found the sight of the 100-foot turbine and the flickering effect of sunlight through the whirring blades a far greater visual impact than anticipated.
Rick and Janet Bayley, who say their property line is about 100 feet from the turbine, and their house is about 900 feet away, went to the ZBA hearings in 2008 when the board considered the special permit.
“We were reluctant from the beginning to agree to a turbine, since it is of no benefit to us personally, but vowed to keep an open mind,” Mr. Bayley wrote in a letter to the zoning board. “We did not want to be ‘not in my backyard’ neighbors.”
The Bayleys visited the home of Mr. Harcourt, who has a turbine on his own property. They say, based on that experience, they thought the turbine would be quiet. Zoning board members also visited Mr. Harcourt’s property and were favorably impressed, according to meeting minutes.
Mr. Harcourt, installed and maintained the turbine for Mr. Snider.
The Bayleys and other neighbors say, however, changing wind conditions and changing seasons made the turbine on Mr. Snider’s property far more obtrusive. In the summer, when prevailing winds are from the southwest, they say they hear the turbine’s mechanical sounds. When the trees leaf out in the spring and summer, the turbine is clearly visible from their yard, kitchen, and second floor living area.
In the winter months, when winds are more often from the north and east, they say the sound carries more directly to their home.
Mr. Snider declined comment, in response to an email inquiry from the Times this week, but in letters to his neighbors and appearances before the ZBA over the past year, he had a very different description of the noise.
“On a rare day, I could hear a whine (less than two seconds),” Mr. Snider wrote in response to a neighbor’s complaint. “Only on very windy days, with gusts exceeding about twenty-three miles per hour, was there a loud noise (to me it sounded like sails luffing in a brisk wind) lasting about two seconds.”
According to the record of proceedings from the original permit hearing in 2008, attended by Mr. Snider, the Bayleys, and several other neighbors, Mr. Snider estimated the wind turbine would generate 12,000 kilowatt-hours of power annually, about twice as much electricity as he needed for his 2,441 square foot, 3-bedroom home. Under Massachusetts’s net-metering laws, the local utility must buy back the extra power generated at the retail price of electricity.
“Mr. Snider said that he thinks the turbine would meet all his energy needs, and he believes his site provides sufficient shelter from neighbors, who will not be able to see or hear the turbine,” the record of that meeting says. “Mr. Snider said that if the Bayleys did not like the project he would not do it. And if there are problems, he said he would take it down.”
According to the record of the ZBA meetings beginning October 16, 2009, the board members made an extended and thorough review of the permit, at the request of neighbors. Mr. Snider and six of his neighbors attended that October meeting.
“Mr. Snider said that he respects that his neighbors came to this hearing, but wanted to remind them that the turbine was put up in good faith and it was not an inexpensive undertaking,” according to the meeting minutes. “He said he and his wife were anxious to lower their carbon footprint.
“Mr. Snider said that a tennis court [on his property] makes more noise. He noted that there are a lot of noises about — from planes, dogs barking, which he finds louder than the turbine.”
The meeting minutes indicate the neighbors discussed the issue amicably, but most disagreed with Mr. Snider’s characterization of the turbine’s impact.
Tom Reynolds said “he was quite taken aback when he heard what sounded like a medevac helicopter one morning,” according to the meeting minutes. “He said he wants to hear the noise of the ocean, not the noise of a turbine.”
“Kitty Burke said that she knows the Sniders and does not believe that it was their intention to put up something that disturbs neighbors,” according to the minutes. “She said the noise is such that her dog is too frightened to walk to her mailbox. She said that the noise from the turbine spoils the neighborhood.”
Mr. Harcourt said in a phone conversation with The Times Wednesday, that the ZBA acted too soon and without proper information.
“They did make an effort and go out and listen,” Mr. Harcourt said. “Of course they went out in the large wind storms. It’s a terrible, terrible blow to the renewable energy industry. My biggest fear is that people are going to think all wind turbines are noisy. They aren’t.”
Mr. Harcourt said from his perspective, Mr. Snider’s turbine works very well.
“The neighbors never really liked it because of the visual aspect, but they then focused on the sound,” Mr. Harcourt said. “There was one period where there was a malfunction where one wire came loose, and it actually was loud at that point. That’s the incident everybody seemed to focus on. It has been running fine. I don’t think people gave it enough time. I think they jumped to the conclusion, improperly, that it wasn’t doing what it was supposed to do, because it really is.”
Over the course of the winter, each member of the zoning board made at least three, and as many as five, visits to the Turkeyland Cove neighborhood. They varied their visits to observe different wind conditions at different times, according to the minutes.
Board member Richard Knight said he wants to see wind power work, according to the minutes. “Mr. Knight concluded his comments saying that although he is in favor of wind power, he would be concerned if he lived next to this turbine.”
Board member John Magnuson said he visited the site five times and heard loud noise on four of those visits. “He said he found the turbine to be very loud that day, emitting banging sounds,” according to the minutes. On another visit he “again found the turbine to be very noisy, shaking and rattling.”
Mr. Magnuson made the motion to rescind the permit, “saying that he does not believe that the turbine is working out as it was originally presented, quiet and unobtrusive. He noted that Mr. Snider had agreed to take the turbine down if it presented problems, which it clearly has,” according to the minutes.
All five ZBA members voted to rescind the permit for those reasons.
Mr. Snider has 20 days to appeal the decision to the Dukes County Superior Court. As of Wednesday, the town had not received notice that he intends to appeal, but the wind turbine was still operating.