On Cuttyhunk, It's Yes in my Backyard

Wind farm plan met with wide acceptance

By David Abel  | GLOBE STAFF  | December 11, 2009

CUTTYHUNK - From the well-perched deck of her hilltop home, Nina Brodeur finds solace in the vast horizon, etched by the changing patterns of the sky and the varying hues of Vineyard Sound.
The view remains a significant reason why her family has lived for 21 years in this remote enclave of old cedar-shingle homes on the most westward of the Elizabeth Islands. Unlike other seaside homeowners, including a vocal group of protesters about 8 miles to the east on Martha's Vineyard, Brodeur and her neighbors have decided they are willing to give up some of their serenity at the state's behest.
They say they can live with a wind farm.
In a few years, the view from Brodeur's deck may include a passel of 450-foot wind turbines, with their massive blades glinting as they rotate in the sun and aircraft warning lights atop them blinking through the night. As part of its efforts to promote wind power, the Patrick administration is backing a proposal to erect 166 wind turbines in the waters off the milewide island.
``I don't think you can just say, `Not in my backyard,' and expect that will be OK,'' Brodeur said. ``If I had my preference, I'd choose not to see them. But I understand the needs of the state, and if it's not in my backyard, it would have to be in somebody else's. We can't close our eyes and think we're more special than anyone else.''
By year's end, the state Executive Office of Energy and Environmental Affairs is expected to complete an ocean management plan and decide whether to allow wind farms in the area. The draft plan includes 100 turbines about 3 miles off the southern coast of Martha's Vineyard in waters along the wildlife refuge and former Navy bombing range Nomans Land. Another 66 turbines are proposed off the southwestern coast of Cuttyhunk.
If the state approves the sea-based wind farms, there may still be years before turbines loom over Vineyard Sound. Any project would have to undergo a rigorous environmental review, a long permitting process, and possible litigation, as has happened with the Cape Wind project planned for federal waters off Cape Cod.
Among the obstacles the proposed wind farms would have to overcome is the vocal opposition on Martha's Vineyard, where fishermen have complained about possible threats to fisheries, homeowners have protested the damage to their views, and real estate agents have bemoaned the potential hit to property values.
A recently formed group of Vineyard residents called Let Vineyarders Decide has protested the state plan. It has crafted an online petition that has attracted scores of residents, who have signed their names and posted comments about the potential wind farms.
In one posting Barbara Bassett, a year-round resident of Aquinnah, wrote: ``If you are successful in barging ahead with this project, you will have managed to destroy one of the few beautiful places left in Massachusetts. Certainly you can find a more appropriate place to locate this project.''
The proposal has created a rift between residents of the Vineyard and Cuttyhunk, whose town selectmen wrote a letter to state environmental officials last month saying they are willing to support the wind farms.
At issue is whether Martha's Vineyard has the authority to nix all or part of the wind farm.
The Martha's Vineyard Commission, a locally appointed and elected panel, has state authorization to regulate development on the island and its surrounding waters. Its members say that includes authority to veto projects in the waters off the town of Gosnold, which is made up of Cuttyhunk and 15 other islands.
But while the commission could reject the wind farm off the Vineyard coast near Nomans Land, it may not have the power to stop the one proposed off Cuttyhunk.
``We're trying to get some clarification from counsel,'' said Mark London, executive director of the commission, whose website cites its jurisdiction over Gosnold. ``We are quite interested in what happens in both locations.''
Officials on Cuttyhunk have said they do not want Vineyard officials to make the decision for them.
``While we don't want to seem unneighborly, we would like to continue to manage our own affairs,'' Malcolm L. Davidson, chairman of the Gosnold Board of Selectman, wrote in the letter to state officials. ``For example, we do not have representation on the Martha's Vineyard Commission and do not want any commission making decisions for us.''
The different positions may reflect the different cultures of the islands.
Unlike the highly developed, estate-filled Vineyard, where the population of about 15,000 balloons to about 115,000 in the summer, Cuttyhunk has fewer than 50 year-round residents and in the last federal census ranked as the state's poorest municipality, with a median income of $22,344.
The people on the tightknit island, most of whom work several jobs to get by, shun tourism, and the town remains dry, with just one restaurant. There is no movie theater or golf course, and complaints to the town's two police officers are usually for lost eyeglasses or dog bites. Mooring fees make up about a quarter of its $1 million annual budget.
Many residents interviewed said they are not concerned about having their views marred. They were more interested in the potential financial benefits, which could be considerable on an island where power costs about 57 cents a kilowatt, roughly five times what it costs on the mainland.
``I think the wind farm is a great idea,'' said George Isabel, 59, who has lived on the island since 1968 and serves as police chief and harbor master. ``People here can't afford to turn on their air conditioners or electric heat. Something has to give, because it's hard to survive. There could be big benefits for us.''
Asa Lombard IV, a 39-year-old carpenter and caretaker who has lived on the island his whole life and now serves as its solid-waste recycling manager, said he often thinks about how many lights are on in his house. But he and others said they would still favor the wind farms, even if there were no potential financial benefits.
``It's the right thing to do for the environment,'' he said. ``We just don't want the Vineyard telling us what to do. They have their island; we have our island. They shouldn't control our waters.''
In their letter to the state, the town's selectmen said their approval is contingent on the state's completing a thorough environmental impact study, allowing town officials to take part in the approval process, excluding two nearby reefs rich with striped bass, setting aside money for decommissioning the turbines, and guaranteeing the town benefits.
Energy and Environmental Affairs Secretary Ian Bowles said the state would comply with all the town's requests, as well as provide 50 percent of any money it received for leasing state waters to a commercial developer. He added that island residents could expect to receive power from the wind farm, probably at a cost far lower than what they now pay.
Massachusetts generates less than 1 percent of the nation's wind energy, about 9 megawatts, enough to power about 2,700 homes.
The Patrick administration has a goal of producing 2,000 megawatts of wind power, enough for 800,000 homes, by 2020, and Bowles said the wind farms in Vineyard Sound would play a big role in meeting those goals.
``We have a moral responsibility to address the most significant environmental challenge of our time,'' Bowles said. ``The fact that the smallest community in the Commonwealth is responding, and their message is that they recognize their responsibility to address climate change, I find that very commendable.''
David Abel can be reached at dabel@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @davabel.