By DAVE FISHER/ecoRI News staff
CHARLESTOWN — The General Assembly’s newly enacted laws facilitating the siting, construction and power-purchase agreements for commercial-grade renewable energy projects took a big hit yesterday. At 9:52 last night, the town of Charlestown became a U.S. trendsetter in the renewable-energy sector when the Town Council voted to pass the first-in-the-country ban on any size or type of electricity-generating wind turbines. The sweeping prohibition applies to large commercial turbines as well as smaller, residential models.
After working for three years to craft an ordinance that was acceptable to residents, the most recent — and heavily redacted — incarnation of the town’s wind ordinance was passed by a vote of 3 to 2. Council members Greg Avedisian and Marjorie Frank were the dissenting votes, while members Lisa DiBello, Dan Slattery and President Thomas Gentz all cast "yea" votes on the ban.
The idea for an outright ban was borne of the mind of town solicitor Peter Ruggiero. This month would have marked the one-year anniversary of the previous moratorium on wind-turbine construction. According to Ruggiero, Rhode Island case law insists moratoria, by legal definition, should be short term, stopgap measures to allow local governments more time to craft sufficient and efficient ordinances. Local arbiters of jurisprudence would have looked unfavorably on an extension of that moratorium, he said.
“It is better, from a legal standpoint, for the town to enact the ban, and work on crafting a new wind ordinance from the ground up," Ruggiero said.
Tim Quillen, speaking on behalf of the Charlestown Democratic Town Committee, expressed opposition to the ordinance as drafted. “This would be a step backward for the town,” he said. "This ban is a radical overreach by the council.” He suggested that the ban be enacted on turbines over 200 feet and 100 kilowatts (kW). Any turbines less than 200 feet highand from 15 to 100 kW should be exempted from the ban.
Local resident Linda Felaco, an American Association for the Advancement of Science member and a frequent contributor to the blog Progressive Charlestown, stated simply, “As a homeowner, it is my right to generate my own power.”
Don Stevens, co-founder of the Compass Charter School and owner of an experimental farmstead that is, in his words, "trying to be off of the grid,” insisted that the town should be an example in the renewable-energy sector, and this ban is not the way to go. “A smart grid is developing that relies on multiple inputs," he said. "We need to explore all of those inputs, whether they be wind, solar or geothermal.”
Local residents Ronald Ariglato and Tom Gilligan are in favor of the ban until an ordinance can be properly crafted. Referring to quality-of-life issues and public health and safety hazards allegedly associated with commercial wind turbines, Gilligan said, “Caution is warranted because the consequences can be drastic.” He made no mention of the drastic consequences of continued fossil-fuel dependence.
When the Town Council was asked by former member Deborah Carney how long the ban was expected to be in place, Councilman Dan Slattery posited that the residential turbine ordinance should be ready in three months and an ordinance concerning commercial turbines should take no more than a year to write.
Council members Slattery and DiBello framed the ban as a way of moving forward prudently and avoiding a legal gray area.
Council members Avedisian and Frank urged proponents of wind power to organize the way that the opposition has. Avedisian said bluntly, “This is not an attempt to take baby steps. The result of this ban will be a huge step backwards for the town. Why the original ordinance can’t be pared down to address residential installations is beyond me. Then, we can move on to addressing larger turbines.”