Turbine debate heads to meeting

Town Meeting will vote on whether or not to ask officials to shut down the Scituate Wind turbine on the Driftway.
Town Meeting will vote on whether or not to ask officials to shut down the Scituate Wind turbine on the Driftway. Jessica Bartlett for The Boston Globe/File 2012

Only a year after the blades on Scituate’s 400-foot-tall wind turbine began spinning, residents will be voting at Tuesday’s Town Meeting on whether to shut it down.

“It will be interesting to see what the town thinks, to get 300-plus people’s sense,” said Selectman Tony Vegnani.

Article 28, submitted by citizens petition, asks the town to rescind the special permit of turbine operator Scituate Wind LLC. Rescinding the permit would effectively shut down the $6 million machine, off the Driftway.

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Though town officials say they’re not obligated to follow the direction of the vote, and turbine owners caution against immediate action, residents are still hopeful that their voices will have some impact.

“As a politician, you need to be very considerate of the will of the people, because we as taxpayers pay these guys’ salaries, pay for their projects, and so on,” said Tom Thompson, a spokesman for the residents behind the initiative. “Seems to me if you vote and there’s a big number in favor of a direction, and they go in a different direction, it begs the question, why bother having Town Meeting?”

About two dozen residents have been complaining of health issues since the turbine, which supplies half of the town’s municipal power, started operating in March 2012.

While the residents have tried to get the town’s Board of Health and selectmen to turn off the machine, the only result has been the start of a noise study.

“We’ve essentially been ignored by the Board of Health on the more appropriate direction from a health and safety perspective,” Thompson said.

He said that rescinding the permit seemed the most appropriate action, because the noise and shadow flicker being experienced by residents near the turbine are much greater than originally specified.

Residents have attributed maladies such as sleeplessness, dizziness, and headaches to the turbine. Similar complaints have arisen in other communities, such as Kingston, where several homeowners are trying to shut down four turbines.

Town Administrator Patricia Vinchesi said any citizens petition submitted to the town with 10 or more voter signatures must be put on the Town Meeting warrant.

As for doing what the vote says, Town Meeting doesn’t have all-encompassing authority, she said. The only group that can take away the turbine’s permit is the one that gave it — the Planning Board.

But she added, “Nonbinding articles are generally received as a statement of Town Meeting’s position on matters and are considered advisory to officials.”

Selectman Joseph Norton said the Town Meeting discussion would help officials hear both sides of the argument. Yet other officials were hesitant to say the vote would have much effect.

“I don’t know that this is really going to cause any immediate reaction one way or another, if the town votes against or in favor,” said Vegnani. “The next step is to get this testing done and find out if there is some violation existing.”

The study, being paid for by the turbine owners and directed by the Board of Health, will examine whether the turbine is operating within the town’s noise specifications.

An engineer was chosen late last month, and results won’t come for a few more weeks.

Selectman Rick Murray, who lives near some of the affected residents and said he can hear the turbine, agreed that the town should gather information before taking action.

“The Board of Health is conducting a wind noise study on it, and I think it’s premature to do anything,” said Murray, who is an earth and environment professor at Boston University. “It’s cut and dried. It’s either above the threshold, in which case the Board of Health will take appropriate action, and the company will as well, because it says so in the special permit. And if it’s below the threshold, then I’m sorry.”

According to Selectman John Danehey, even if there is a violation, the town is more likely to change the operation of the turbine rather than remove it.

The only way selectmen would seek to remove the turbine, he said, is if there was a proven health issue, for which there is currently no concrete evidence.

“I’m not sure what the solution is now beyond go through the sound study,” Danehey said. “I think these people need to file a suit against Scituate Wind, take it to court, and I think that’s their venue when the town study comes back . . . . But we’re in a bind. If there is no acoustical violation and no violation of permit, the town can’t take it up themselves.”

Gordon Deane, president of Palmer Capital and owner of the turbine, echoed the warning against acting prematurely.

“Scituate Wind and the Board of Health are studying the sound issue. It is better to try to understand and seek to ameliorate the issues than to take precipitous action that will only result in legal bills,” Deane said in an e-mail.

Some residents, however, fear that the owner-funded turbine study will be biased, and are skeptical of the guidelines that will be used to determine the health impacts of noise.

They have commissioned their own study to look at the effects.

Deane has cautioned the town against giving much credibility to the resident-funded study, criticizing the engineer, who is on the board of an anti-turbine group, the Society for Wind Vigilance, and saying that the noise guidelines residents will be reviewing haven’t been scientifically vetted in the same way those from the state Department of Environmental Protection have.

The study being conducted by the town and Scituate Wind will use the DEP guidelines.

For now, Thompson is simply trying to engage the town in the debate.

“You make people aware of the issue and Town Meeting and your article . . . and you open the doors . . . our expectation is we will have a good turnout for Town Meeting,” Thompson said.

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