NEWBURYPORT — A proposal under review by the City Council and the Planning Board seeks to amend zoning to allow for wind turbines along the old Interstate 95 access road, but many residents have come out strongly against the idea.
The ordinance, sponsored by Councilor at large Barry Connell, was introduced to the council on June 28 and referred to the Committee on Planning & Development for further discussion.
"I think that we have a responsibility to look for ways to reduce the carbon footprint of the city of Newburyport to the extent that is possible," Connell said in a phone interview Thursday.
With climate change in mind, the councilor said he was looking for a way to "encourage the development of noncarbon-generating facilities such as a solar farm or a wind turbine."
The city does not have a lot of open space that isn't privately owned, he said.
While reviewing a map of the city with Planning Director Andy Port, Connell noticed the land adjacent to I-95 that sits behind the Oleo Woods residential neighborhood and the Little River Trail System.
Since the section is long and narrow, he didn't think a solar farm could go there, but saw an opportunity to rezone the land to allow for wind turbines.
On Wednesday evening, at the request of residents in the area, Connell met with neighbors and tried to answer questions.
Dan Lane, who lives on Richardson Path, said he felt blindsided by the proposal and questioned how "green" the initiative was, especially with the removal of trees and all the animals it would displace, he said.
In an email after the meeting, another neighbor, Adam Forrest, raised concerns over the process, saying that rezoning the area will allow for developers to complete their own feasibility studies, which "are heavily influenced to show results that drive a return on their investment."
"This is not only a threat to destroying the beautiful Little River Trail System, but also sets a precedent for City Council to rezone any conservation land or other areas that they feel can be profited from," he said. "This precedent would open a door that we, as taxpaying citizens, will never be able to shut."
John Routhier, an Oleo Woods resident, said similarly: "So, even if they don't put windmills (there) now, there are other options to commercialize that area instead of it being conservation land."
Residents also brought up the issue of shadow flickering from the spinning wind turbine blades, but Connell believed it would "not be an issue" based on where the turbines would go and where the sun rises and sets.
"Councilman Connell was unable to articulate a single benefit regarding this specific project," Mark Menery, another Oleo Woods resident, wrote in an email. "He referenced 'climate change' multiple times, but when specific questions came up regarding actual data and research around the benefits of cutting down hundreds of trees and moving into conservation land, he was unable to answer any questions."
"We all agreed that climate change is a problem, but we all unanimously agreed that Councilman Connell's proposal is not the right direction to take," Menery added.
Connell, who is not seeking reelection after his term ends this year, said all of these concerns were legitimate, including the visual impact and the constraint of wetlands in the area.
Residents also questioned the benefit, since trees and other vegetation would need to be removed to make room for wind turbines.
"There is so much more carbon reduction gained by a wind turbine than is lost by clearing the vegetation under its footprint," Connell said by phone.
He also acknowledged the biggest concern was that the process was being rushed.
"I think that's my fault for not talking to them sooner, but the way the planning process and zoning works, you first look at legal constraints on the property," Connell said.
"If not here, where?" he said. "If not now, when? Because I don't think we can turn our backs on the impending impact of climate change and say we're being responsible stewards of our community and the overall environment in which we live."
Connell said the location "may not be ideal," but he believes the proposal is "stimulating some serious debate and consideration of what we ought to be doing in order to reduce our contribution to climate change."
Ward 5 Councilor Jim McCauley, who is opposed to the idea, said he would have liked to have been consulted prior to this proposal. He lives on Storeybrooke Drive and worried about being in a possible flicker zone.
During a joint Planning Board and City Council meeting on Aug. 18, Conservation Commission Chair Joe Teixeira shared concerns over the location and the need to remove trees. He suggested that the business and industrial park might be a better location
Commission Vice Chair Stephen Moore also worried about the location, particularly with all of the residents who live nearby and the number of people who use the Little River Trail System for walking and birdwatching.
Another public hearing on the matter will take place Sept. 15 at 7 p.m. City officials are also set to do a formal walkthrough of the area early next week.
For more on the proposal, visit www.cityofnewburyport.com/planning-board/agenda-items/wind-energy-facilities-and-towers-along-i-95.