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Lessons From Lempster: Town Has Found Wind Farm To Be Neither Blessing Nor Curse

Flickr Creative Commons | PSNH

The towns of Alexandria, Danbury, and Grafton are weighing if they want a 36 turbine wind farm along their ridgelines.

It’s a contentious decision the town of Lempster approved in 2007. That project has been operating for four years, and it's the closest thing New Hampshire has to an analog for the decision these three towns are now facing.

When representatives from the Spanish energy company Iberdrola Renewablesmeet with people in Alexandria, Grafton and Danbury, it gets pretty heated.

Betsy Schneider: You’re all taxpayers you have a voice!
Ed Cherian: I’d like to give people an opportunity to check out the boards, please
Schnieder: Why?
Cherian: Because that’s the purpose of tonight
Schneider: you’re a salesman and this is nothing but propaganda!

That was project manager Ed Cherian and Betsy Schneider of Alexandria who’s part of a newly formed group called Newfound Lake Wind Watch. They showed up at three public meetings that Iberdrola held and barraged Cherian with questions.

As the crowd breaks up into sessions with company experts, another Alexandria resident and Wind Watch member Jennifer Tuthill says that at first she thought wind farms were a good idea, but not anymore.

Tuthill: People have this concept that it’s all good and it’s all good and it’s all giving and the wind is spinning and it’s a lovely picture. And when you start breaking it down, that isn’t so. That kind of puts cracks in the whole picture. And then you also have to what they do in order to put up the turbines, and the 36 that they’re talking about are going to have a huge impact on a small village in an area that is very, very rural.

Opponents to the project say the noise from the turbines will keep residents awake at night, and they talk about health risks associated with living near wind-farms. They say the installation will fill wetlands, meaning impacts on the watershed and aquifers, and it will kill birds and disorient wildlife. And above all they say it will doom the region economically: property values will fall, wealthy vacationers will head to Squam or Winnipesaukee, and the few businesses around will fail.

Those were some of the same worries that people in Lempster had 5 years ago, but today they have 12 turbines on their ridgeline. 

Everett Thurber is a selectmen in Lempster, the home of New Hampshire’s first industrial scale wind project. He says, since the turbines went up in 2008, not much has changed really.

Thurber: You know since everybody’s gone away it’s like: ho-hum. And now it pretty much boils down to, ‘oh another interview’, [laughs] or more questions.

Wind Turbine Noise

I interviewed him in front of his daughter’s horse barn, 3,600 feet from three turbines towering over us. The turbines were spinning as we talked but they were hard to hear. Thurber says, yeah, you can hear them... sometimes.

Thurber: Ok, I just picked up, I can hear it now, but don’t move because if you move you can’t hear it.

Sometimes he says by listening closely he hears the turbines from around 2 miles away, at his house across the valley.

Thurber: If you go close, and then get far away you’re in tune to that noise you can hear it, but if you’re not in tune you just don’t hear it.

But that’s not the experience of everyone who lives near a wind turbine in other parts of the country.

Jim Cummings: you know virtually all of the really serious complaints, like I can’t sleep or I can’t enjoy my garden any more, virtually all of those complaints are within 3,000 maybe 3,500 feet.

Jim Cummings writes about the impacts of different sounds on the environment for theAcoustic Ecology Institute in New Mexico. He says, generally folks who are bothered are ones who expect rural life to be quiet – typically not farmers or loggers, for instance.

Cummings: and it’s just a psychological factor for each person. You know about half the population is very noise tolerant, it takes a lot to bother them, and about 20 percent of the population is very noise sensitive so any time they can hear it they’ll start to be bothered, and 30 percent is in between.

And there can be health effects for sensitive people, though it’s a small slice of the population. Cummings says, even studies that set out trying to prove that such effects exist, suggest that somewhere around 5 to 10 percent of people who hear turbines fall ill. And those who do, have classic stress symptoms: lost sleep, headaches, and loss of mental focus.

Because of these concerns, some towns in other states have voted for very strict restrictions on wind farms, requiring them to be set back half a mile, a mile, or more from the nearest home.

At the proposed farm in the Newfound Area the closest house would be 2,700 feet – or more than a half a mile – from the nearest turbine, and most homes would be substantially farther.

In Lempster some houses are much closer. Kevin Onella, who leases his land to Iberdrola in Lempster, lives just 500 feet away from one.

Onella: in the house, in the summertime, if you open the windows it sounds like the ocean, it doesn’t sound like a big noisy thing.

Onella says he doesn’t mind seeing or hearing the turbines, but that didn’t stop him from applying for a tax abatement on his view.

Onella: Well this is just like the rest of America, if someone is gonna have some free money for you are you gonna try to take it?

Lempster selectmen Everett Thurber says Onella asked for an abatement because of the noise too, and one other resident in town asked for a view abatement.

Property Values And Taxes

But apart from the tax issues of the property owner, Thurber says the dire predictions about the impacts of the wind farm haven’t come true. A study from the UNH Whittemore School of business found no effect on property values from the wind turbines. And four realtors I randomly called for this story say their experiences back up that study.

Thurber does say that one thing that Iberdrola dangled in front of the town early on hasn’t really materialized: a boost to tax revenues.

Thurber: We’re struggling with the tax benefit.

The state assesses the value of the turbines at $61 million dollars, so Lempster knew that its taxes to the county and state would go up. But they town also knew it would have money coming in from Iberdrola. What it didn’t realize was that the funding formula for the school it shares with neighboring Goshen is tied to property values. Now, because Lempter’s assessed value is so much higher than Goshen’s, Lempster pays a much bigger chunk of the school budget.

Thurber: So the kids in Goshen say they’re educating their kids for $7 thousand dollars a year and it costs the kids in Lempster $12-13 thousand dollars a year.

That’s a nice break for Goshen’s budget, but for Lempster the wind farm has been a wash in terms of taxes. That’s something critics of the proposed project in Danbury, Alexandria and Grafton have seized on. Here’s Grafton resident Alice Dugan at the open house hosted by Iberdrola in that town.

Dugan: And when your company comes and puts industry into a town, that changes the way that the state applies the money and you can see what it did in Lempster.

But that wouldn’t be the case in any of these three towns, because all of them belong to school districts that base their funding on how many pupils they send to their schools, and not property values. And Iberdrola spokesman Ed Cherian notes that even though Lempster hasn’t had a net gain in taxes, the state certainly sees a nice boost.

Cherian: There’s also another over $400,000 dollars in taxes paid annually to the state. So that goes into the general fund and benefits everyone in New Hampshire.

Every Town An Island

But there are many fears that the members of Newfound Lake Wind Watch have that are not likely to be quelled by the experience of towns like Lempster, because they say the Newfound region is just different. The biggest question mark: how will tourists coming to enjoy the lake view the turbines.

Alexandria resident Jennifer Tuthill says she’s not willing to risk hurting tourism to Newfound.

Tuthill: The tourist industry is so important to the people who live here year round, whether they’re builders or plumbers or road crew or marina people or car salesman, we all depend on the tourists who come, more than any other industry around here.

And this is perhaps the issue at the heart of opposition to wind farms: a lot of people just don’t like the looks of them. And if you don’t like them, then some of the other questions – like the amount of land used per kilowatt generated, the average of six to seven birds killed per turbine per year, and the trees cut down to develop  a wind site – start to look more serious.

But there's no way to generate lots of electricity without significant impacts on the environment. Now the question is whether the folks of Alexandria, Danbury, and Grafton are willing to see those impacts up close.

Sam Evans-Brown has been working for New Hampshire Public Radio since 2010, when he began as a freelancer. He shifted gears in 2016 and began producing Outside/In, a podcast and radio show about “the natural world and how we use it.” His work has won him several awards, including two regional Edward R. Murrow awards, one national Murrow, and the Overseas Press Club of America's award for best environmental reporting in any medium. He studied Politics and Spanish at Bates College, and before reporting was variously employed as a Spanish teacher, farmer, bicycle mechanic, ski coach, research assistant, a wilderness trip leader and a technical supporter.
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