We need both: clean energy - and clean government
To the Editor:
Wendie A. Howland, Pocasset
I worried about a lot of things, the first morning after what passed for a hearing at the Bourne Planning Board on our submission for the special permit for our residential windmill. One would be that the first thing I heard on the radio is that oil topped $103 per gallon, an all-time high. I worried about the money we and our builders have sunk into this project in good faith on a town-issued building permit, and for which our grant will not kick in until the project is completed. I worried about the future costs for litigation. I worry about the people who would have wanted to come after us to do their part to have clean energy and lower utility bills in their future.
Let's be clear: I'm not worried about the big hole in our yard, presently full of expensive iron placed there when we had a work permit and on which we stopped work voluntarily days before the Town issued a stop work order. I'm not worried about the unsightly huge piles of sand and topsoil that by rights should be settling in to be ready for spring growth, or the potential harm to the foundation of our adjacent garage. I'm not worried about the hundreds of hours we and our builders spent over the last two and a half years obtaining information, engineering, and planning. I'm not worried about the six or seven Town Board hearings we attended, bringing and submitting everything we were ever asked for and more. I'm not worried that the Planning Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals barely speak a civil word to or about each other. I'm not worried about the Town wind energy conversion system (WECS) bylaw, for which we helped provide language and spoke at Town Meeting, because it passed with a single dissenting vote and the will of the people in town is clear. I'm not even worried about who my grandmother would call the poor souls who won't or can't read or hear factual information on our project; in a country where almost a third of the population doesn't believe in evolution, I don't suppose I can be too surprised about deliberate ignorance.
I'll tell you what worries me, though. I worry that a citizen can do what we did: rely on the published bylaw written by a Town board, passed overwhelmingly by a Town meeting, and on the books to be upheld by the elected officials charged with upholding the law. Despite what you may have heard or will hear from some quarters, our application addressed every, single, solitary criterion placed on a project like this, and was completely compliant with the bylaw. You could look it up.
The certified engineered "fall zone," the area around the monopole where it could collapse if we were hit by winds greater than Category 3 hurricane (that's greater than 130 mph, more than Hurricane Katrina), was within the bylaw. Questions regarding "catastrophic failure" have a definable answer, and the engineering describes precisely what that is. (Aside: If you live almost a quarter of a mile from the site of a residential windmill and fear that winds greater than 130 mph will shoot it at your children when they are outside at innocent play, I have one question for you: What are you doing letting them outside in a storm like that?)
The height was within the bylaw, which specifically allows height consistent with efficient engineering taking into account local conditions (trees, buildings, hills).
The sound, the placement, the absence of lighting, the security, insurance coverage, economic data, and every other concern we were asked to address, we did, providing the stamped and signed documentation exactly as requested.
The board had no factual basis on which to deny the permit; indeed, when asked on what basis the permit was being denied, they said that their verbal comments were sufficient. Well, verbal comments aren't worth the paper they're written on, although they do have the admittedly useful characteristic of being unavailable for further review. The decision in writing states only, "Height is almost double what's allowed. Fall zone on abutting properties." Well, not to put too fine a point on it, neither of these opinions is supported by actual fact.
I worry that members of a Town board can come into a hearing with their minds clearly made up before it hears the facts for which it asked. I worry that a Town board can have legitimate concerns regarding a special permit submission raised by its consulting expert (the very excellent Coreen Moore, town planner) and, declining to even ask the questions in public, arbitrarily ignore the data that satisfy them when it is presented to them anyway.
The comments from member Donald Duberger that he wished the 40-foot height requirement was still the law of the land were telling, as was his obvious glee at referring to (but not producing) a note from what he said were 18 of our "neighbors" opposing our plan "in the middle of the residential zone of Michael Road and Keith Road." However, we do not live in the middle of this area. After later review of this note, it is found that of the 12 addresses on this page, exactly one appears on the list of abutters to our project; about half of the signers live nearly a mile away-actually, closer to, well, Mr. Duberger's house, None have any sight lines to our project from their property. We have on record letters signed by several legal abutters; others have declined to be on the record because they must do business with the town but wish us well. It is clear that the promoter of this "petition" was unable to get support from any more of our abutters. The town bylaw makes no reference to "zones," or for that matter, any person's opinion. Further, we have Mr. Duberger's letter to the editor responding to a supportive letter from actual abutter Dave Downarowicz, in which he states categorically that "neighbors don't matter" in the sort of thing that comes before them. This brings into question the assertion that consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds; it appears this can vary, as the spirit moves them.
Mr. Duberger very belligerently asked a technical question which was succinctly rebutted by the engineer in the room, making reference to the expertise of the Massachusetts Technology Collaborative's standards for siting of residential windmills. Mr. Duberger said that the windmills at Mass Maritime and the Upper Cape school were inefficient and a disappointment, opinions which may come as a big surprise the people there, although I must remember to thank him for being concerned for our financial welfare. He cast aspersions on the reliability of engineers; the Titanic and the Big Dig were invoked. If this is the case, it is unfortunate that so many building codes in town rely on engineers. I wonder also why engineering specs are mandated by so many of our bylaws, if they are so very unreliable.
(BTW, I guess we then must discard the planning board's latest Buzzards Bay improvement plan, because economic improvement plans in towns like Detroit and Newark have failed.)
Mr. Doucette and Mr. Shearer stated that the conditions in the bylaw as written were completely satisfied and that personal feelings or opinions had no place in the permitting process. Mr. Haworth retorted that they were not held to the bylaw, that they had discretion in the process. As a matter of fact, there is no discretion written in the bylaw, which, again, came from this board and which, again, the town passed overwhelmingly. I worry that there is no accountability for this egregiously arrogant behavior.
Mr. Duberger stated, "This is the wrong project in the wrong place at the wrong time." This is a residential-sized wind energy conversion system, compliant with all aspects of the planning board's bylaw, in a residential area, nearly a year after the bylaw passed overwhelmingly, with electrical rates rising all the time. If you can't site it on an acre+ lot on top of a hill right now, where and when do you think this board WOULD permit one? This appears to be a designed first step - possibly the last-in preventing windmills in any residential area in the town. This is not the will of the people. It will not stand.
Mr. Jensen told us outside the room that he would have voted for it if we "cut down the trees." Well, they aren't our trees to cut down, and I'm not sure that cutting down trees is what any of us who care about the environment have in mind, anyway.
One could find a number of descriptors for this unbelievable performance. Parochially small-minded, oppositional, paternalistic, short-sighted, petty, egregious (op cit), arrogant (op cit), and abusive are some of the printable ones I've heard from other town citizens since this decision came down. I have not sought, but have had given to me freely, a number of stories in which this same board relentlessly disregarded both bylaws and neighbors in denying permits to town citizens for residential and commercial projects, simply because they don't like them. Because this is a small town, some of these people are loath to come forth, because they do business with the town, or in some cases, with the particular members in question. The stories of petty harassment, threats, and yelling in a public hearing are astonishingly consistent. Why is this allowed to continue? If they were taking your lunch money at school, would you let them keep it up?
At the end of the day we are left with two impressions. One is that this contentious board has no intention of ever permitting economically any viable residential windmills in the Town of Bourne, because they just don't like them. The other, much more troubling, is that as in all small places with small minds, you can say that law doesn't count, that it isn't necessary to uphold a law as written, and some bully's personal opinion is more important than a moral and sworn legal responsibility to do so. If anyone has another impression, I'd be interested in the factual basis for it. I would like to think the Town of Bourne is better than that.
While I completely understand the pressures under which people have to do business in and with the town, I respectfully submit that it is time someone stood up to these bullies. We have looked at our options for legal redress, which do exist, and accordingly will file a Complaint in Superior Court. For my money, if a court rules that this denial was handed down arbitrarily in defiance of the bylaw as written, I'd consider looking to recover costs both for our extended legal costs and the lost time on the project. I wonder what the Board of Selectmen and the Town attorney will think about that.
I would like everyone who reads this to send a letter to the editor to the Cape Cod Times, the Bourne Enterprise, the Bourne Courier, and the Selectmen of the Town of Bourne (Town Hall, 24 Perry Avenue, Buzzards Bay MA 02532) to protest this foolishness, and to pressure the Planning Board to save the town's money and face by reviewing the submissions and ruling for clean energy by granting our permit. The only way to shine light on bad government is to bring attention to the acts they perpetrate. Does Bourne really want clean energy, or is this bylaw a fraud foisted upon us? Let them know this is what we want.
Yours for clean energy - and clean government,
Wendie A. Howland, Pocasset