Massachusetts set to review renewables’ future

Pepperell planning officials are trying, once again, to follow in the footsteps of nearby towns on the renewable energy frontier.

A public hearing will be held Monday at Town Hall for a proposed wind-energy bylaw that would make it easier to install power-generating turbines up to 140 feet tall, about the size of most cellphone towers. A similar proposal that would have allowed wind turbines up to 450 feet tall was defeated at Town Meeting in May, when it fell nine votes short.

Groton, Townsend, and Ashburnham have wind energy bylaws in place, while Billerica, Tyngsborough, and Dracut are working on them.

Regional planning commissions are pushing for municipalities to develop wind-turbine regulations before the Legislature passes a law that could limit local controls. A bill died last summer on Beacon Hill, but it could be revived this year, officials said.

“It would allow wind turbines with very little restrictions,’’ said Beverly Woods, executive director of the Northern Middlesex Council of Governments, which helped develop Pepperell’s wind-energy bylaw proposal. “The state laws have really allowed turbines by right, without having to pay any attention to things like zoning.’’

Nathaniel Karns, executive director of the Berkshire Regional Planning Commission, sent a letter to the State House adamantly opposing the wind turbine bill in July.

Describing the bill as having “fatal flaws,’’ Karns said the state had not established unified standards for wind turbines, and had problems deciding which agencies would oversee permitting and other processes. “Renewable energy is the Wild West right now,’’ Karns said.

Local control is a particular concern for many economically suffering Berkshire County towns in high elevations, prime spots for wind energy technology, Karns said.

The proposed law “said localities have the ability to deny these projects . . . in one place, and in another place it says differently,’’ Karns said.

“We’re just trying to be proactive,’’ said Stephen Themelis, chairman of Pepperell’s Planning Board. “Other towns do have wind energy bylaws in place. We looked at other towns, and said we need to do the same thing too.’’

Themelis said he decided to set the maximum height in the revised proposal at 140 feet largely because of last spring’s Town Meeting vote. The prospect of 450-foot wind turbines, the same height as a 41-story skyscraper, for commercial uses scared a few people, he said.

The vote was 77-52 in favor, but as a zoning change the proposal needed a two-thirds majority, or 86 votes.

“It seemed to me that most people were in favor of it. I think what made them nervous was the commercial component,’’ he said, “and maybe not having the education on what these things are.’’

Themelis said he will reiterate at Monday’s public hearing that if the bylaw is approved, most wind turbines will be less than 140 feet, some as small as 35 feet, and that the greater the tower’s height, the larger the surrounding parcel will need to be.

“It’s aimed toward the more rural areas,’’ he said. “We’re not talking about downtown Pepperell.’’

The turbines must be high enough to obtain consistent wind speeds of at least 12 miles per hour in order to generate 2 to 10 kilowatts of electricity, which is what a typical home would require. The ordinance would allow a maximum of 60 kilowatts.

Woods said new technology makes the turbines less noisy than they were 20 years ago, and she played down their potential unsightliness.

“When cellphone towers first came in, people talked about how unattractive they are,’’ Woods said. “I think these things will become much more commonplace. It’ll be like utility poles. They don’t look nice but they serve a purpose, and people become more accepting of them.’’

Themelis said his major reason for proposing the bylaw is to make the process easier for homeowners and small businesses to put up smaller turbines for energy production. Under the town’s current bylaws, an applicant for a wind turbine would go through the same process as someone trying to construct a new building, he said.

However, it could be a long time before wind turbines actually come to Pepperell, and probably longer before they become mainstream, officials said.


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