Storm still gusting over Hamlin wind towers
Wind towers have been lightning rods for controversy since developers first appeared in Hamlin in 2006. However, the Hamlin Town Board will move one step closer to resolution when it votes on tower regulations later this month.
On Feb. 25, the board announced that the proposed wind tower regulations would include a setback of 1,200 feet and the requirement that towers could not generate more than 6 decibels of sound over ambient sound — the normal level of sound in the area. The Town Board plans to hold a public meeting on the proposed law April 10. If past meetings are an indication, this one could be tumultuous.
Hamlin’s wind tower committee began meeting after a query from a Maryland company in 2006. The committee was charged with developing standards for the 400-foot-tall electricity-generating towers, only to fracture over two key issues: minimum setbacks and maximum allowable sound levels. The setback is the minimum distance a tower would have to stand from the nearest neighboring residence, and the maximum sound level is the greatest sound a tower would be allowed to make, as measured at the outer wall of that residence.
The fractures reached deeper into Hamlin as the debate continued. Some residents, concerned about neighbors’ health and town aesthetics, spoke out for setbacks as large as a half mile. One group in this camp, the Hamlin Preservation Group, has hired a lawyer to argue the case for a 1,700 setback to the Town Board. Other residents, including farmers and landowners who had leased land for tower sites to the Spanish energy company Iberdrola, pushed for setbacks of 1,000 feet. Though the Town Board eventually proposed the 27-page Local Law Governing Wind Energy Facilities, it deadlocked over the setback until recently.
When it comes to controversy over wind towers, Hamlin isn’t alone.
“What is happening in Hamlin is happening in a lot of places,” said Lisa Linowes, executive director of the Industrial Wind Action Group (IWAG).
The new, unfamiliar technology that the towers symbolize might generate some of the controversy.
“In general, changes to a local community are met with skepticism,” said Laurie Jodziewicz, manager of siting policy for the American Wind Energy Association (AWEA). “Most people are not familiar with wind turbines and the effects that they might have.”
Linowes and Jodziewicz fall on opposite sides of the tower issue. The nonprofit IWAG was created to inform communities and government officials of the issues surrounding wind towers — also known as “wind turbines” — though Linowes admits the staff is about 70 percent against the towers. AWEA is a trade association representing the wind power industry.
Linowes says her concerns about wind tower developments start with the way developers often enter a municipality. She contends that developers often lease tower sites from local landowners before seeking permission to build from municipalities — gaining instant allies.
“They have landowners that will stand up and argue before the boards,” Linowes said.
Government officials then have to choose between the financial interests of the landowners and the potential risks to the health of nearby residents. At least three Hamlin landowners have leased tower sites to Iberdrola — though the dates those leases were signed are not known publicly.
Then, there’s the relatively small amount of scientific research available on the effect wind towers could have on the health of those living nearby, and the other ways they could affect the surrounding area.
“It’s very spotty,” Linowes said. “It wasn’t until the last four to five years that we began to see turbines built within 2,000 feet of where people live.”
The IWEA Web site posts several articles on wind towers and wind tower developments by researchers from around the world, including several authored by Dr. Nina Pierpont, a pediatrician based in Malone, Franklin County, who has researched the health issues surrounding wind towers. Pierpont, who has testified before the Energy Committee of the state Legislature on the issue, has stated that a wind turbine can produce sound on the level of an operating vacuum cleaner, washing machine or hair drier.
According to Pierpont, those living near a wind tower can experience “wind turbine syndrome,” suffering a range of symptoms that includes sleep disruption, headaches, dizziness and tinnitus — a ringing in the ears. The effect would not be limited to that resulting from a tower’s sounds. According to the researcher, the “flicker effect” caused by the moving shadows of the tower’s huge blades could leave some nauseated or unsteady and even trigger seizures in those who have seizure disorders.
Pierpont has pushed for a setback of no less than one-and-a-half miles from neighboring residences.
“It does appear that a mile to a mile and a half eliminates all of the problems,” Linowes said. In December, Trempealeau County, Wisconsin adopted a setback of one mile from neighboring residences.
For those living 750 to 1,000 feet from a wind farm, the towers are “no noisier than a kitchen refrigerator or a moderately quiet room.”
Jodziewicz said AWEA doesn’t have a standard for setbacks. Most wind energy companies set their towers 1,000 to 1,200 feet from neighboring residences, depending upon the area’s topography. A tower in a valley will transmit more noise downwind than one on flat ground.
The Hamlin Town Board plans to vote on the proposed wind tower regulations on April 25 — though members have said passage doesn’t necessarily mean resolution.