Sunday, September 9, 2007

N.H. Resident Creates Whirlwind of Turbine Controversy

Neighbors, officials oppose man's plan to build 3 towers for power

AMHERST, N.H. - In an era when going green is all the rage, one man's effort to harness wind energy has run up against a powerful opponent: zoning laws.

Norm Hebert, a computer consultant, is seeking to erect three wind turbines on his property in his suburban subdivision. He says he will not sell the energy created; he will use it to power his house and keep the air cleaner for everyone.

He wants "to make a positive difference," he told town officials at a recent public hearing on the matter.

But town officials say that the zoning code mandates that no building be taller than 35 feet. They have barred him from erecting his turbines, which could reach 121 feet. Hebert argues that his wind turbines are not buildings and therefore not subject to the zoning code's height restrictions. He has appealed the decision to Hillsborough County Superior Court.

Neighbors, too, are up in arms. They say Hebert clear-cut a large swath of his land to make way for the turbines without consulting them. The trees had acted as a noise buffer from nearby highway traffic. Moreover, they say, Hebert's property, wooded and at a relatively low elevation, is unlikely to have the sort of gusts necessary for the wind turbine.

"It's not that we New Hampshire people don't want wind power," said Merrie Kincaid, who lives across the street from Hebert's property. "But, be reasonable."

Hebert did not return phone calls seeking comment.

His attorney, Silas Little, did not return phone calls seeking comment on the neighbors' concerns.

The dispute highlights a key issue facing alternative energy use, wind power specialists say. Few town zoning codes provide specific regulatory guidance for wind turbines. As such, as more residents and commercial energy producers seek to harness wind energy, height and siting issues are expected to surface in towns across the region.

The clash also underscores the challenges New Hampshire faces as it seeks to meet a legislatively enacted goal of producing at least 25 percent of the state's energy from renewable sources by 2025.

With such a mandate, some say, individuals must be empowered to erect wind turbines.

"We have to take the buckshot approach as opposed to the silver bullet approach," said William Chase, a state representative and supporter of wind energy. "If we are going to hit the 2025 mark, we need to have a lot of medium and small energy production."

But Amherst officials say the issue of turbines, for now, is one of enforcing existing rules.

"We are not picking on alternative energy. We are just following the ordinances," said Robert Rowe, vice chairman of the Zoning Board of Adjustment.

Wind turbines of the sort that Hebert envisions are different from commercial wind farms, like one proposed for Nantucket Sound or the soon-to-be-constructed wind farm in Lempster, N.H., which will be the state's first. Those projects, specialists say, are far larger. The Lempster wind farm will have a dozen 400-foot-tall turbines on the Lempster Mountain ridge and will generate about 24 megawatts, or enough power for roughly 10,000 homes.

Hebert's proposal, by contrast, would generate only a fraction of that power, alternative energy specialists say. But to be functional, residential wind turbines must still be relatively tall, often 30 to 50 feet higher than anything around it.

Statewide efforts to accommodate wind turbines in zoning codes that limit building or structure heights have failed. Last year, Chase, a Democrat from Westmoreland, proposed legislation that would exempt wind turbines from zoning code height restrictions that do not apply specifically to wind turbines. The legislation also provided guidelines for wind turbine noise generation and location relative to abutters.

The bill stalled in committee after critics said the measure gave the state too great a hand in municipal matters. Chase, a member of the House Science and Technology Committee, said he plans to rework the language of the bill and continue pushing it in the State House.

Meanwhile, Amherst officials are considering a change to their zoning bylaws. R. Gordon Leedy, chairman of the Planning Board, said height restrictions had been enacted at a time when residents were building tall houses.

"No one was thinking about putting up wind turbines then," Leedy said. "Given the current climate - no pun intended - it seems like a change is something people might want to do."

Ultimately, the issue of wind turbines in residential neighborhoods will come down to revised notions of acceptable land use, said Laura Richardson, of the New Hampshire Sustainable Energy Association.

"It's all about getting accustomed to seeing something and recognizing that you need it," said Richardson. "I don't like cellphone towers, but it's a tool and plenty of people have been saved by them."

Wind power, she said, will come to be seen the same way.

By Sarah Schweitzer, Globe Staff

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