CHARLESTOWN – Hundreds turned out for a public hearing before the Charlestown Zoning Board Tuesday, the latest chapter in the quest of Whalerock Renewable Energy LLC to erect two wind turbines in the town.
Several residents in opposition to the turbines met attendees at the door handing out stickers that read, “vote no,” and depicted a wind turbine in a red circle with a slash through it.
The cafeteria/gym at Charlestown Elementary School quickly became full, with several attendees standing in the back.
At 7:15 p.m., the meeting, scheduled to begin at 7 p.m., hadn’t yet started.
One resident shouted, “Let’s get the meeting started already,” and Michael Rzewuski, chair of the zoning board, soon called the meeting to order.
He began by asking those standing in the back to find a seat and if there weren’t enough chairs additional chairs would be brought in.
The hearing, the latest in a three-year saga, on Whalerock’s application for a special use permit to construct two 262-foot wind turbines to be located on an 81-acre parcel north of Route 1 and bordered by Kings Factory Road, took place based on a Superior Court ruling last month.
In April, Judge Kristin E. Rodgers ruled that Larry LeBlanc, local developer and president of Whalerock, would be able to take his case before the zoning board for a hearing to be held no later than June 14.
Rodgers’ ruling granted LeBlanc permission to pursue the special use permits he needs to build the turbines after several previous denials and a three-year battle with the town.
Tuesday night’s hearing began in a controversial way when one resident asked two zoning board members to recuse themselves from the hearing before testimony had even started.
Ron Areglado, of 2 Partridge Run, Charlestown, came to the microphone and asked that board members Richard Frank and William Meyer recuse themselves from the hearing and making any decision on Whalerock based on “personal bias and prejudice.”
Areglado claimed Frank was recorded at the April 16 zoning board meeting speaking with board member Ronald Crosson and alternate member Amanda Magee regarding a packet Areglado and his wife, Maureen, had distributed to zoning board members.
Areglado said Frank “opined positively about windmills” and made “negative comments” about Areglado and his wife.
Areglado then asked Meyer to recuse himself based on Meyer’s personal relationship with Larry LeBlanc, turbine developer and Whalerock president. Areglado also contended that Meyer had asked residents what they would like to see on LeBlanc’s property and that it was “highly inappropriate and unethical for Meyer to make inquiries regarding this case.”
Areglado also said that Meyer has been very public about his “friendship” with LeBlanc.
“I ask that the chair request each member to identify if they have any association with the applicant, which in any way would hinder their ability to provide a fair hearing,” Areglado concluded.
Areglado’s comments were then met with a large round of applause from attendees.
Robert Craven, Charlestown town solicitor, addressed Areglado’s request.
Craven said the law requires a person to be fair and impartial and make decisions based solely on the testimony brought before him or her. However, a person’s judgment on his or her own ability to be fair and impartial in a certain case is subjective, and he or she must determine whether that ability has been compromised.
“The person asked to be recused must make the decision whether they can be fair and impartial,” Craven said.
Both Meyer and Frank said they could remain fair and impartial.
Meyer acknowledged that LeBlanc was a friend of his, and they have been friends since Meyer moved to Charlestown year round 10 years ago.
“I have been on zoning board of reviews for 30 years,” Meyer said. “I think I have demonstrated an ability to be fair and impartial in all matters. I think that my record will show that I have done that and I can be fair and impartial in this case.”
Testimony finally began and Nicholas Gorham, attorney for Whalerock, asked the board to begin the evening with a presentation reviewing what the project entails, for both the benefit of the zoning board and the public.
Before that presentation began, proceedings were again paused while Peter Ruggiero, attorney for the town of Charlestown, and John Mancini, special counsel for the town and several abutting property owners, asked for a continuance of the hearing, despite the fact it hadn’t really even started.
Gorham objected to the town’s involvement in the case, noting that the Superior Court ruled that the town wasn’t an aggrieved party in this case.
“The town is an aggrieved party,” Ruggiero said. “The town received notice of the hearing because it owns property across the street from the site.”
Ruggiero said he planned to file a motion with the Superior Court Wednesday to reconsider the decision ruling the town was not an aggrieved party because the town owns plat 19 lot 63-1, which is listed on the abutters list.
Audience members then erupted in a round of applause.
The board and attorneys then went on to plan the dates for the continuation of the hearing.
Ruggiero and Mancini said they planned to bring a number of witnesses forward to present testimony and would need ample time to do so.
The board and the attorneys decided on June 5 as the next hearing date.
“Just note my objection,” Gorham repeated regarding the town’s involvement in the case.
Finally, Michael Carlino, project manager and son-in-law of developer Larry LeBlanc, began a presentation on Whalerock’s proposed turbines.
“This project is part of a much larger response to the Rhode Island political and legislative leadership’s request for the development of clean renewable energy,” Carlino said. “It’s being developed by a Rhode Island entrepreneur and businessman on his own land but will benefit the community through tax revenue and green energy consumed locally. It’s good for Mr. LeBlanc but it also benefits the community and helps reduce our carbon footprint and dependence on fossil fuels.”
Carlino said the two 262-foot turbines could power between 1,000 and 2,000 homes.
The white, non-reflective wind turbines, are Vestas V90 1.8 megawatt models, and are proposed to be located on an 81-acre privately owned area adjacent to Route 1 and abutting Kings Factory Road.
Carlino said the turbines measure 262.4 feet from base to nacelle and include three equally spaced rotor blades at 147.6 feet each, so the entire structure will reach 410 feet when the blade is at its highest point. The turbines would also be marked with a red synchronized light as required by the Federal Aviation Administration.
According to Carlino, Vestas is the world’s largest manufacturer of wind turbines.
Carlino compared the proposed Whalerock turbines to other local turbines. The North Kingstown Green turbine is 364 feet fall, the turbine in Portsmouth is 336 feet tall and the turbine at New England Tech on Route 95 is 156 feet tall.
Michel Rzewuski, zoning board chair, asked Carlino what the specific benefit would be for the community through tax revenue and for the community as a whole.
“The project would be a money making enterprise for Mr. LeBlanc,” Carlino said.
The audience applauded again.
“Most businesses are designed to make a profit,” Carlino continued. He said in this case, the revenue from the land would benefit the town of Charlestown.
Board member Ronald Crosson asked Carlino about the cost and lifespan of the turbines.
Carlino said they usually last around 20 years and cost around $4 million each.
Board member Raymond Dreczko asked for concrete turbine revenue figures.
Carlino said Whalerock gave revenue projections to the Charlestown Economic Development Committee three years ago and would have to locate those figures.
“So at this point in time you can’t give anything quantitative, it’s just subjective,” Dreczko said.
Gorham interceded and said, “With any wind project, you can’t really make a projection on the overall profitability until you have an energy contract with National Grid.”
However, Gorham said National Grid wouldn’t talk to a turbine developer until the project gains local approval.
Board members asked a few more logistical questions before the Carlino turned the presentation over to Eric Prive, a registered professional engineer with DiPrete Engineering.
Prive testified to the type of soil on the site, the distance from the nearest turbine to a wetland on the site (more than 500 feet) and potential erosion, which Prive said he didn’t expect would occur.
Prive continued with his testimony and then Gorham attempted to introduce Whalerock’s next witness, Daniel Mendelsohn, a mechanical engineer, to testify to the noise, shadow flicker and other effects produced by the turbine.
John Mancini, attorney for the town and several abutting property owners then objected when Gorham attempted to introduce Mendelsohn’s resume as an exhibit before the board.
Mancini requested that Mendelsohn and Prive go through their qualifications for the record.
Mancini cross-examined Prive.
“How many sites have you designed that involve wind turbines?” Mancini asked.
“Zero,” Prive said. “But that is not equivalent to anything that matters.”
The audience applauded.
“Then how can you compare?” Mancini asked.
“Using the town’s zoning ordinance,” he said. “There’s no specialty to wind turbines but it’s a matter of site grading and drainage.”
“I thought we going to inquire into [Prive’s] credentials?” he asked. “I want to note my continuing objection to the town conducting cross-examination of witnesses here. The town is the appointing authority of each member of this board they’re either going to reappoint you or not. They shouldn’t be in this case. They shouldn’t be telling you how to vote. They’ve got lawyers here. I guarantee you these lawyers are going to tell you how to vote.”
Rzewuski jumped in, “I object to that statement myself,” he said. “I do not want to hear that out of your mouth again please sir.”
Gorham continued, “I can assure you at the end of this case it is counsel’s job to suggest to you how to vote, it is also my job.”
Gorham again objected to the town’s involvement in the case.
“It’s very unusual for an attorney to be representing the town and some abutters,” Gorham said. “I’ve never seen that in 25 years.”
Finally, Daniel Mendelsohn, principal and engineer at RPS ASA, formerly Applied Science Associates, took the stand.
Mendelsohn described his credentials, stating that he has worked extensively on state and local wind projects extensively, and has worked on 30 different renewable energy projects.
The board accepted Mendelsohn as an expert and he began his testimony regarding the noise analysis of the proposed turbines. At the end of the meeting, the board also accepted Prive as an expert.
Mendelsohn admitted he did not conduct the noise study, but could explain it.
Mancini and board member Ronald Crosson called for an expert witness or someone who conducted the study to deliver this testimony.
Gorham asked the board to let Mendelsohn testify to this as he reviewed the data that was collected.
“In all due respect that is not his report,” Crosson said. “I have read that there can be some health situations based on the sound and I would like an expert based on that and how it might impact townspeople. I want to know if it’s going to be safe for people to live around it.”
Crosson’s comment was met with more applause.
Mendelsohn went on to describe the noise analysis, which found that the turbines only produce minimal sound, well within the town’s 50-decibel limit, according to town ordinance.
Mendelsohn also testified to the impact of shadow flicker from the turbines on adjacent property. According to town ordinance, shadow flicker from small wind energy systems should be kept below 30 hours per year, but there is no limit for large wind energy systems as long as the developer can prove there is no adverse effect.
Mendelsohn said Whalerock still planned to keep the shadow flicker at 30 hours or below.
Mendelsohn also said Whalerock would be willing to implement mitigation of shadow flicker by shutting down the turbines for 10 minutes twice a day for two weeks in mid-winter and three weeks in mid-summer. That would reduce the shadow flicker impact by nine hours, resulting in no areas with greater than 30 hours per year of exposure, according to Mendelsohn.
Two areas of Route 1, one of which is about 90 meters, would be impacted by more than 30 hours of shadow flicker a year if the shadow flicker was not mitigated.
He also discussed the environmental impacts, including avian fatalities. Mendelsohn said 28,500 birds are killed annually across the country from wind turbines, which is a negligible about compared to the 550 million killed annually by buildings.
The debate over potential health impacts to turbine neighbors resumed.
“I would really like to hear from a professional expert that understands the body and the impact of sound and how this relates,” Crosson said.
Again, his comments were met with applause.
Mendelsohn said in his research he hasn’t come across any peer-reviewed journal articles stating that turbines do or do not have specific medical implications.
“I expect it would surface at some point pretty quickly if there was something to be made from this,” Mendelsohn said. “Everything else I’ve spoken on I could find a peer-reviewed article or a few.”
Crosson replied, “If you were a resident, if you were about to live next to it, you would want to know emphatically whether that unit would impact your health or your family’s health.”
Mendelsohn said, “I agree with you 100 percent and I’m trying to help you with the part I know about. If I ever find out that it is truly a problem, I won’t be standing here testifying to the benefits of wind turbines.”
Carlino came forward again. “You’re asking for medical opinion about potential sound impacts,” he said. “What we’re dealing with is science and responding to scientific data and if we have an issue, how do we address that using science. There’s no scientific or peer reviewed journal that talks about the negative impacts of [turbines], I’m not saying it’s not true, look at Gulf War Syndrome. But currently there is no scientific data that establishes it. We can’t definitely say there’s no connection based on science but we can’t say there is. There’s nothing that exists at this point that says there’s something that would harm the neighbors.”
Carlino still said he would contact Vestas, the turbine manufacturer, to ask if they had any data on potentially adverse impacts to human health of wind turbines.
“We’re kind of chasing a boogey man,” he said. “Because it’s not scientifically defined or determined. In order to address an issue, you have to know an issue exists.”
Testimony ended there and the board voted unanimously to continue the hearing to June 5 at 7 p.m. at Charlestown Elementary School.