With so much attention focused on global warming and surging gas prices, interest in windmills is now at an all-time high across the nation — and also here on the Vineyard.
But renewed interest in wind turbines has brought with it a number of planning and logistical concerns. Much like the pre-zoning era of the Vineyard when neighborhoods and roads were laid out with minimal planning, there is now growing concern that a lack of uniform regulations could result in backyard turbines popping up all over the Island with little regard to aesthetics or scenic vistas.
Many Island planning officials agree the Vineyard should explore wind turbine regulations as soon as possible.
“I think you’re going to see [wind turbines] everywhere . . . they are the chic thing right now,” said John Abrams, co-founder and president of South Mountain Co. in West Tisbury. “We should have an idea of where we want them to be and where we don’t want them to be,” he said.
Currently there are no uniform Islandwide regulations pertaining to wind turbines, although the Martha’s Vineyard Commission has broached the subject on several occasions. Instead, each of the six Island towns has its own set of regulations.
West Tisbury has the most wind-friendly regulations and allows turbines with no height restrictions. Oak Bluffs allows windmills by right but has a set height limit of 70 feet, which precludes all but the smallest turbines. Edgartown and Chilmark both allow wind turbines with approval from the zoning board of appeals. In Vineyard Haven there is a height restriction of 80 feet for so-called slender structures in business districts and a 40-foot restriction in residential areas; although taller structures are allowed by special permit from the zoning board.
The town of Aquinnah has taken the most aggressive approach to creating new wind turbine regulations, although the process to date has not been fruitful. In December the Martha’s Vineyard Commission unanimously agreed to create a special energy district critical of planning concern in Aquinnah, the first district of its kind on the Island.
The vote was seen as the first step in drafting regulations that would regulate the placement of wind turbines, solar panels and geothermal systems. But voters later rejected regulations for the energy district at town meeting three times, and just last week selectmen announced they were scrapping plans for the energy district for the time being.
But those involved in the energy district have voiced determination not to give up on the initiative, and a newly formed group in Aquinnah is now working on making the bylaw more palatable.
Selectman Camille Rose, who led the charge to create the energy district, said she is confident voters will adopt new regulations at some point. She said there is a misperception the regulations are intended to deter wind turbines, when in fact the opposite is true. She said the regulations are instead intended to protect the fragile landscape of Aquinnah while capitalizing on the town’s extraordinary wind energy potential.
“We basically have the best conditions for wind turbines you can find — which is great on one hand, but a little scary on the other. We know a lot of people will be looking into turbines in the next few years; many already have,” Ms. Rose said.
She explained the concept of big wind versus little wind — the construction of one large wind turbine that generates a large amount of electricity as opposed to a proliferation of small wind turbines by private homeowners spread out across a community. As a general rule, the larger a wind turbine, the more electricity it generates, she said.
Ms. Rose said she personally supports a big wind approach.
“Just think if a dozen people decide to put up 100-foot wind towers; just think about how our town would look. The tree line is so low and everything is open here, there is hardly any place you can put up even a small [wind turbine] without affecting your neighbors’ views,” she said.
Ms. Rose said the town has already explored the possibility of building three turbines in town. She also said she fully supports a regional approach to wind energy. “This is a regional problem with a regional solution . . . the wind doesn’t stop blowing at the town line,” she said.
In a recent letter to the editor published in the Gazette, West Tisbury resident Sander Shapiro commented on both the need for wind turbine regulations and the distinction between big wind and small wind.
“There are already several of these machines sticking their blades above the trees on the Island. If these become fashionable, and they will, there may come a day when the Island landscape resembles a forest of roof-sitting television antennae such as blighted 1950s American suburbia. Our need for green energy might justify such a degradation of the horizon if it weren’t for the fact that these mini-turbines are substantially less efficient than larger models,” Mr. Shapiro wrote.
Currently, federal regulation of wind projects on private land are almost nonexistent, a recent report from the National Research Council found. Although some states have developed guidelines, wind turbines are such a recent addition onto the energy scene that most states are relatively inexperienced at regulating them.
Last month, Gov. Deval Patrick signed the Green Communities Act, a comprehensive energy reform bill that puts Massachusetts at the head of the renewable energy curve. Under the law, the state will make energy efficiency programs available in markets with traditional energy suppliers and force utility companies to offer rebates and incentives for customers to upgrade lighting, air conditioning and industrial equipment.
Mark London, executive director of the Martha’s Vineyard Commission, said the planning agency has never formally discussed the issue of regional wind turbine regulations, although he agreed such an initiative seems to fit with commission goals and objectives. “I think wind turbines are a regional issue because even a single turbine can have an impact on the whole Island,” Mr. London said.
He emphasized that regulations should address the issue of energy efficiency. It doesn’t make sense, he said, for someone to build a wind turbine when their home is not energy efficient. He also said regulations should make it possible for groups of homeowners, towns or businesses to get together to build one large turbine instead of several smaller ones.
“One big tower properly sited with proper setbacks and screening is better than having a bunch of them on several different properties,” he said.
Carlos Montoya, chairman of the town wind committee in Aquinnah, said Island towns should explore both short and long-term plans for regulating wind turbines. He said towns might pursue their own bylaws in the short term, while exploring a regional approach in the long run.
Mr. Montoya said the Vineyard presents both opportunities and challenges when it comes to wind energy.
“We have relatively small number of square miles; we have an airport that creates additional concerns with height restrictions; we have this need to protect the natural beauty [of the Island]. But we also have this great potential for wind energy. There is this widely held feeling we need to get this right, because these [turbines] are going to become more popular in the coming years,” he said.