Bethel passes restrictive wind ordinance

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After a 45-minute discussion and some criticism of the way the issue was handled, voters at Wednesday’s Bethel Town Meeting approved a restrictive commercial wind ordinance.
As was described to selectmen at their May 8 meeting and at the June 5 public hearing, the Ordinance Review Committee crafted the proposal, using Woodstock’s ordinance as a general guide. Bethel town officials highlighted three key areas: setbacks from adjacent properties, decibel levels, and height of towers.
The Bethel ordinance stipulates that a minimum setback of 2 miles be required from the outer edge of each tower to the closest point on any property line of any nonparticipating parcel, and 3,000 feet from any scenic or special resource or site in the National Register of Historic Places.
Woodstock has a 1-mile setback from the closest property line.
Sound decibel levels under the Bethel ordinance may not exceed 25 dBA between 7 p.m. and 7 a.m., or 35 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m. beyond the project boundaries (and those of participating parcels waiving noise restrictions). Woodstock’s requirement is 35 and 45 dBA, respectively.
Tower height in Bethel would be restricted to 250 feet above grade at its base if the ordinance is approved.
Woodstock towers at the Spruce Mountain wind facility are 400 feet, and a potential project in Greenwood could have 600-foot towers.
Under the Bethel ordinance, any abutter to a proposed wind project location can opt out of the protection requirements, and the Planning Board would also have some waiver capabilities.
A map created by Bethel Town Office staff using the setback criteria was displayed at Wednesday’s Town Meeting, and shows there are no existing, standalone lots that would meet either a 2-mile or 1-mile setback, according to town officials.
Selectboard Chairman Don Bennett said before discussion started that the town had received recent feedback that the ordinance was too restrictive and the time for public input too short.
He recommended the proposal still be approved, with the understanding that it would be sent back to the ORC to revisit the setback, decibel and height requirements, “so we can straighten out anything that’s wrong with it.”
Resident Ron Savage disagreed with that approach.
The ordinance, he said, is “really more of a prohibition,” because of its restrictiveness. He said it didn’t make sense to pass an ordinance that already needed more work.
“It should be right from the beginning,” he said.
Bob Chadbourne said an attorney who had advised towns on wind ordinances told him Bethel’s was the most restrictive he had seen.
Chadbourne said there should also be more input from property owners and developers, as well as consideration of public benefits of such projects, such as to the tax base and clean energy.
He advocated to vote down the proposal and go back to the drawing board.
But resident Dwayne Bennett, who has been researching wind projects in Milton and Greenwood, said if a project was proposed in Bethel before a new ordinance proposal was approved, the only restrictions that would apply would be state ones. Those requirements, he said, allow higher decibel levels and much shorter setbacks.
He said East Bethel was in a good position for access to nearby main transmission lines, potentially making it attractive for potential wind development.
Jarrod Crockett also said the town would give up its ability to defend itself without an ordinance in place.
Bob Elliott, who was involved in the writing of the Woodstock ordinance, noted the limits imposed by even a 1-mile setback in Bethel. He said that while the proposed Bethel ordinance seemed prohibitive, he didn’t know how it could be written to be more inviting to wind projects without “basically saying ‘you can build them wherever you want to’ because there isn’t much room in town.
“I think this is as good as it’s going to get,” he said.
Elliott also noted the slogan on the welcome signs at the entrances to Bethel that describe it as “Maine’s Most Beautiful Mountain Village.” Wind towers, he said, “might change that perception.”
After 45 minutes, Lori Hoeh said the ordinance did not mean the town would have to have wind power, but it would provide a framework for regulating potential projects.
“So let’s pass the damn thing,” she said to laughter.
They did.

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