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Vinalhaven, Falmouth community wind noise issues remain contentious

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Two of the “hot button” wind farms of 2010 are headed into the new year with continuing local rancor, despite conciliatory talk from authorities in each town when neighbors began to raise noise issues a year ago.

In Vinalhaven, Maine, where three turbines went online in October 2009, providing power for the local electric co-op, the State Department of Environmental Protection (DEP) has agreed with neighbors that the turbines are exceeding state noise limits at times (see this detailed Bangor Daily News article and this recent OpEd by a neighbor)

Fox Islands Windfarm, Vinalhaven (courtesy Bangor Daily News)

Fox Islands Windfarm, Vinalhaven (courtesy Bangor Daily News)

The DEP ruled that recordings paid for by local residents suggest the turbines are “likely to exceed” night time noise limits of 45dB when the wind speed is higher at the top of the turbines than the bottom; the recordings found noise levels up to 47dB.  George Baker, CEO of Fox Island Wind, the local LLC formed to build the turbines, notes that FIW’s noise consultant “absolutely doesn’t agree” with the finding, suggesting that ambient noise contributions to the overall sound mean that the turbines themselves are operating at just under the acceptable noise limit.  The DEP gave FIW until January to submit an operational plan that will slow the turbines when wind conditions match those during the recordings.

Baker contends that the conditions are rare, and occur only in summer.  However, many locals have reported that the noise they experienced last winter in generally higher winds was worse than the summertime conditions in which the recordings were made; it will be interesting to see whether new recordings this winter confirm these experiences (the formal protocol for measurements was not agreed upon until June).  While FIW has said it looks forward to resolving the issues, and is pursuing several approaches to reducing noise output, neighborhood group Fox Island Wind Neighbors notes that recent statements have been more confrontational than collaborative, including a mailing to ratepayers stressing the cost of responding to complaints.  At the root of the problems is that townspeople were led to expect that the turbines noise would always be drowned out by the sound of the wind itself, which has proven not to be the case. In addition, neighbors have been frustrated at the lack of more immediate changes to turbine operation once noise was clearly an issue; initially, FIW seemed sympathetic to the problems, but over time, neighbors have felt marginalized, and the original promise of small-town communication leading to a shared solution has slipped further from reach.  On the other side of the coin, FIW’s attempts to assess the effectiveness of slowing turbines down have been hampered by the fact that several neighbors distrusted the process and refused to participate in surveys during operational experiments; one lost opportunity there was determining whether a few decibel decrease in noise was even noticeable to neighbors. FIWNeighbors just filed a second formal complaint, and has more than a dozen more cued up for submission soon.

For more on the Vinalhaven situation, see:
Previous AEInews coverage
Press release from Fox Islands Wind Neighbors
Press release from Fox Islands Wind
Maine DEP Compliance Letter to FIW

Meanwhile, down at the south end of Cape Cod, the town of Falmouth, Massachusetts also continues with its local wind turbine saga (see earlier AEInews posts).  There, the town owns two turbines at the wastewater treatment facility, designed to provide over half the electricity used by municipal facilities in town (the first one began operating in March, while the second is still under construction).  Similarly to Vinalhaven, though, neighbors within a half to three quarters of a mile have responded with surprise at the new noise intrusion at their homes.

The situation is perhaps slightly less contentious in Falmouth, though not without continuing tensions. The town has already taken steps to reduce noise issues, by shutting down the turbines in high winds, when they are noisiest. Still, neighbor Terri Pentifallo-Drummey says, “It never stops. You feel it on your chest… We are getting no relief from it.”  A group of residents filed a Cease and Desist order, challenging the town’s assertion that town-owned facilities are exempt from local zoning procedures; the Zoning Board of Appeals will hear the challenge this week.  A sound study by consultants hired by the town returned its results in late September; while the town is in compliance with existing noise limits, the second turbine will likely push noise levels to or beyond the legal thresholds. In commenting on the current compliance (see comments on previous link), one resident noted that “it is now obvious that both town and state regulations on wind turbine noise are flawed,” while another offered this compelling slice of life:

“Yesterday we were outside. Beautiful Autumn day. Pitched horse shoes, harvested the final fruits of the garden. Just a gorgeous day to be outside. The turbine going all day. They would ramp up and then back down. Some moments were tolerable and others not. At times our property was filled with a turbulent turbine noise. The sound bounces off the back off the house, seeming to elevate the noise and is a nuisance. The pulsating/chopping sound over and over again is something that we have not gotten used to. Nor the low frequency droning noise that fills our property. This is a drastic change from what we were used to. 12 months ago it was peaceful. The way life in the woods should be and that’s why we chose to live here.”

In particular, state noise guidelines limit new noise sources to be less than 10dB louder than existing ambient noise; according to Christopher Menge, who did the study, the single turbine is not close to that limit, but is often clearly perceptible.  However, noise models suggest that the addition of the second turbine will push noise levels to just below or just above 10dB over ambient at several locations tested in the neighborhood.  Likewise, the town noise limit of 40dB would probably be exceeded in some locations. Assistant town manager Heather Harper says it will likely take 12-18 months to assess the actual impacts and come up with appropriate mitigation measures as needed.

At the same time, the chairmen of the Falmouth Planning Board and Zoning Board of Appeals have drafted a new bylaw that would impose substantially stricter conditions on future turbines in town.  Setbacks would be 10 times the turbine diameter; this would have imposed a 2690-foot setback, twice the 1300 feet that some homes now are from the town turbine.  And noise limits would be reduced to 30dB, or 25dB if there is a noticeable pulse (amplitude modulation) in the turbine sounds.  The hope is that the Planning Board will tweak and finalize the proposed ordinance in January, in order to get it on the April Town Meeting agenda.

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