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Nantucket Sound may get new status

Ruling could delay wind farm approval

By Beth Daley
Globe Staff / November 6, 2009

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Massachusetts’ top historic preservation officer has dealt a setback to the proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm, ruling yesterday that the body of water is eligible for listing on the National Register of Historic Places because of its cultural significance for two Native American tribes.

In a letter released late in the afternoon, Brona Simon, state historic preservation officer, said she believes that Nantucket Sound is so culturally important to two Wampanoag tribes that it should be eligible to be listed on the National Register as a traditional cultural property. Her decision conflicts with an earlier conclusion by the Minerals Management Service, the federal agency that led the environmental review of the Cape Wind project.

Now, the head of the National Register will have to determine whether the property is eligible to be listed, a process that could ultimately delay the project’s approval by up to a year, federal and state officials have said.

A listing would not necessarily stop the project, but would make permitting much more cumbersome. If the National Register head determines that the 560-square-mile sound is eligible, there would be a lengthy review process. The project has already undergone eight years of government reviews, and a final federal decision on the 130 wind turbines was expected this year.

Simon’s letter states that her office found “considerable archeological, historical, and ethnographic information that substantiates Nantucket Sound is historically significant.’’ A 21-page explanation followed her short letter.

Governor Deval Patrick was critical of the decision in a statement released last night.

“I respect the Wampanoags, but this decision is ridiculous,’’ he said. “We are going to have to get serious about alternative energy installations where they make sense, and every environmental and regulatory review has concluded that Cape Wind makes sense.’’

The two Massachusetts tribes have contended for five years that the turbines in Nantucket Sound would disturb their spiritual sun greetings and submerged ancestral burying grounds. That is in part because during the last ice age, so much of the world’s water was locked in glaciers and New England’s coast extended more than 75 miles farther from today’s shore. Native Americans probably hunted and lived on that exposed land, the tribes say.

While archeological excavations in Nantucket Sound have found evidence of a submerged forest 6 feet under the mud, there have been no signs of Native American camps.

Yesterday, a Wampanoag officer said that Simon’s decision underscored the validity of the tribes’ claim and that she hoped it would lead to long-term protection of Nantucket Sound.

“It’s heartening,’’ said Bettina Washington, tribal historic preservation officer for the Aquinnah Wampanoag Tribe on Martha’s Vineyard. “What this is about is where this is being placed - take it out of our [view]. We are not against wind power.’’

She and other tribal representatives say that their culture greets the sunrise each day, sometimes from sacred sites on the shore of Nantucket Sound, and that the ritual requires unobstructed views.

“This has been our stance since 2004,’’ Washington said, that placing wind turbines in Nantucket Sound would destroy the sound “for our purposes; it needs to go in deeper water.’’

Last night, Mark Rodgers, a spokesman for Cape Wind, called Simon’s letter a “flawed decision.’’ The developer contends that the Native Americans’ contentions are unfounded.

Wind farm supporters said the tribes’ concerns are a delaying tactic. They say the Native Americans’ claims, aided recently by publicity efforts by Cape Wind’s main opposition group, the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, have delayed the project more than six months.

Federal regulations require that permitting agencies take into account the effect a project could have on historic properties. If the impact is considered adverse, alternatives or modifications to the project can be considered, but are not required, according to the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation, an independent federal agency.

An adverse finding rarely kills projects, the Advisory Council said.

A spokeswoman for the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound said the group was pleased by yesterday’s ruling.

“The Massachusetts Historical Commission has legitimized the claim of the tribes,’’ said Audra Parker.

Correction Text: Due to reporting error, Brona Simon's letter was initially mischaracterized.