Towns can fight wind turbines, but board’s call usually wins out


Soil scientist Matt Davison, left, of Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, Inc. shows Siting Council member Barbara Currier Bell the boarder of the resevoir near the propsed turbine site in Prospect during a recent walk through.

Connecticut Siting Council is a powerful force

Everybody wants power at the lowest possible cost.

Almost nobody wants the Connecticut Siting Council in their back yard.

The 31-member council, which has essentially incontestable authority, has the last word on the placement of all power, hazardous waste and telecommunications facilities in the state. Its decisions carry “preemptive jurisdiction” over local municipalities and their citizens, a clout not welcome in a state that prides itself on home rule.

Locally, that clout is being tested in the towns of Colebrook and Prospect as they grapple with proposals to build giant wind turbines.

While the council’s decisions are open to public criticism, they are hardly ever overturned. Since its creation in 1972, the council’s nine-member energy and telecommunications group has rendered 1,393 decisions, which, by law, can only be challenged in court. Surprisingly few have been — only 14 in the past decade — leaving critics to note that industry applications and petitions have enjoyed an approval rate of 97 percent.

“What they don’t tell you is that almost 100 percent of those approved projects have been revised from their original form,” said Linda Roberts, the council’s executive director.

The council this spring is finding itself in a whole new arena, the first industrial-sized commercial wind turbines proposed for Connecticut. BNE Energy of West Hartford has applied for permission to erect windmills in suburban Prospect and rural Colebrook. The applications have been fiercely opposed by residents and wind-power critics in both communities, fostering a volatile atmosphere that contributed to the resignation last week of the council’s chairman, Daniel F. Caruso, a probate judge from Fairfield who has held the post for the past six years.

Caruso, 53, resigned after being accused by a lawyer for wind-power opponents in Prospect of initiating an “ex parte” discussion about the application, in violation of council rules. Caruso denied any inappropriate intent but said he would resign in what he said were the “best interests” of the council and his colleagues.

Gov. Dannel P. Malloy promptly named a land-use expert, Robert M. Stein Jr., from his hometown of Stamford, to the council and nominated him to replace Caruso as a chairman, a position that requires approval by the state legislature. All members are appointed.

Caruso’s resignation will not interfere with hearings on the Prospect and Colebrook applications. The council, with a nine-person staff and a $2 million budget , will continue hearing testimony and asking questions March 31 at its New Britain office.

Best known for its rulings on cell towers, council members, who are paid a stipend of $200 per meeting, say they are used to the hot seat.

“It’s not a fun job,” Roberts said with a rueful smile during a recent interview at her New Britain office. Then-Gov. Thomas J. Meskill and the state legislature created the council after deciding that the siting of power plants and hazardous waste dumps was far too important to be left to profit-seeking industries. Cell towers, not an issue in 1972, fell under the council’s jurisdiction years later, just a wind turbines have joined their regulatory responsibilities.

Council records indicate that only 14 council decisions have been challenged in the past decade, mostly by citizen groups and municipalities. As testimony to the power granted the Siting Council, none of those appeals were successful, although some were settled out of court with revisions agreed upon by both parties.

The council is responsible for siting all renewable energy facilities, which the state has encouraged though incentive dollars and legislation, but only large wind-power projects have recently been proposed. Anything designed to generate 1 megawatt or more of electricity — one million watts, or enough to power 1,000 homes — must go before the state agency. Smaller commercial wind projects, such as those being developed with a new “egg beater” design by the Torrington company Optiwind, only need local approval.

Public opposition is centered not so much on the merits of wind power, although some critics claim Connecticut is not breezy enough to make large turbines pay, but on placing those giant, spinning blades in their backyards. The six windmills that BNE Energy is proposing will cost an estimated $30 million in Colebrook and $8 million in Prospect, with their towers standing as tall as a 15-story building. “We wouldn’t be investing all this time, money and energy into it, if we didn’t think it will pay,” said Gregory J. Zupkus, BNE’s chief executive officer, during a walking inspection by council members of the Colebrook site last week.

A source of criticism is the council’s funding. Its annual budget is paid by the industries it regulates, with costs ultimately being paid by ratepayers.

The council has been hearing for years from residents about nuisance and eyesore concerns in the placement of cell towers, power plants and waste disposal sites. One critic, Washington Conservation Commission Chairman Susan Payne, said the telecommunications industry and council have fostered “this mad expansion of towers and service,” causing “a degradation of rural character, historic landscape, property values and people’s health.” Some opponents are especially frustrated by the state’s limited authority to address health risks, especially electromagnetic radiation from cell towers, which the federal government says is within acceptable limits.

Now wind power has brought new concerns to the council table, such as turbine noise, flickering shadows from spinning blades and even flying ice.

“The learning curve is steep,” said Barbara Currier Bell, a six-year veteran of the council who said she has racked up hundreds of hours studying all facets of wind-powered energy, a relatively new field in this country. For expertise, the council hired a Massachusetts consulting firm, Epsilon Associates, to advise members on the range of renewable energy projects that may come before it. Council members are appointed to the council by the governor and legislative leaders, without term limits. One member, Colin C. Tait, helped draft the original legislation for the agency 39 years ago. The average age of the nine council members today is 69, and their average length of service is 14 years.

Although some came to their positions with specific expertise in energy or environmental issues, the council takes pride in being what it calls a “citizen board,” acting as a go-between between industry and the public. Council members say they consider all aspects of a project: technology, neighborhood impact, need, health concerns, the environment.

Long hours and frequent public criticism explain in part why turnover is so rare on this particular board: Not many volunteers are lined up to replace members, government insiders say. “Crazy” was the way council member James J. Murphy Jr., a former state senator from Norwich, replied when asked about the main qualification for service.

Largely in response to the public outcry in Prospect and Colebrook, the state legislature is considering a law to tightly regulate wind turbines, with specific setback, anti-noise and other requirements. Co-author of House Bill 6249 is Prospect’s Democratic Rep. Vickie Nardello, who also holds the influential position of co-chairman of the General Assembly’s Energy and Technology Committee.

Members of the Siting Council have testified against the bill, saying they already deal with enough regulations governing safety, environmental protection and public need, and none of them apply to just one type of energy source. Only 10 states have regulations specifically aimed at wind power, according to the Office of Legislative Research.

“Be careful what you wish for,” Bell said. “There can be unintended consequences from highly specific regulations. I think it’s important for a body like ours to be flexible, because each case is different.” The statutory deadline for action on the Prospect proposal is May 16 and June 6 for Colebrook’s. If a new regulation bill is adopted before then, the BNE applications go back to the drawing board.

The council faces another proposed change this year in a cost-saving bill proposed by Gov. Malloy to fold the council into a super agency consolidating all environmental and energy functions. The Department of Environmental Protection, the Department of Energy, the Department of Public Utility Control and the Connecticut Siting Council would all operate under the umbrella of a new Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP), which would be headed by recently appointed Yale professor Dan Esty of Cheshire. The council has not objected to the “principles” outlined in that consolidation bill, which is expected to pass the Democratic-controlled General Assembly before it adjourns in June.