Wind turbines facing historic hurdles

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History may judge Cape Cod renewable-energy initiatives sooner than many expected

Though the proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm is the most prominent example of conflict between history and renewable-energy efforts, less well-known projects face scrutiny from historic preservation advocates across the Cape.

In 2007 the Hyannis Main Street Waterfront Historic District stymied convenience store magnate and current gubernatorial candidate Christy Mihos’ effort to install wind turbines at a gas station on Ocean Street.

In August a Dennis historic district committee narrowly approved allowing the police department to install solar power on its rooftop amid concerns about maintenance and appropriate screening from the road.

Most recently a turbine project at Cape Cod Community College was held up after the Old King’s Highway Historic District Committee required that the college seek the district’s approval before proceeding.

The college is waiting for a decision on how to proceed from the Massachusetts Division of Capital Asset Management, the agency responsible for construction projects on state-managed property, college spokesman Michael Gross said.

While piles of dirt surround a large hole on the West Barnstable campus where the college planned to install the 600-kilowatt turbine, historic preservation committees across the Cape continue to grapple with their role in a changing political and technological landscape.

A voice for preservation

The six Old King’s Highway Historic District committees that monitor and regulate an 80-square-mile swath north of Route 6 from Sandwich to Orleans are arguably the most powerful voice for historic preservation on the Cape. A regional commission oversees the six committees and hears appeals.

“As of this point the regional commission has not taken a position on wind power or renewable energy per se,” said Jim Wilson, attorney for the regional board.

Although there has been no appeal so far to the regional commission on renewable-energy projects, a jurisdictional issue in the college’s case concerns the commission, he said.

“We’re monitoring the matter because our understanding was that the community college originally took the position that they were exempt from our regulations or our statute but that’s contrary to the reading of the statute,” Wilson said.

But the historic district is meant to be a “living district” and not one “frozen in time” that absolutely prohibits new technology, including renewable-energy projects, he said.

The college, although known for its eco-friendly buildings and curriculum, is far from insensitive to historic concerns and believed it provided ample opportunity for comment on its plan, Gross said.

The primary concern for historic committees is clear, said Peter Lomenzo, chairman of the regional commission and the Dennis historic committee. “How do we maintain and preserve the historic nature of the district throughout the six communities?” he said.

Of course there will inevitably be conflict with projects that do not meet the district’s standards, he said.

Clash of now and then

While renewable-energy projects are popular now, this is not the first time historic districts have dealt with conflict between new technology and historic preservation, Lomenzo said.

Old King’s highway historic district, Established: 1973, Towns: Sandwich, Barnstable, Yarmouth, Dennis, Brewster, Orleans

When cellular telephone companies first proposed large antennas in the district the committees decided the antennas were inappropriate, he said. The telephone companies solved the problem by burying the antennas in flagpoles or placing them inside church steeples and in the ridge lines of roofs, he said.

Although wind turbines present more substantial hurdles, there is a place for them in the district if they can be located out of view, Lomenzo said. Even antennas that cannot be buried in other structures have been erected successfully out of sight from area roadways, he said.

In Dennis, an entire section of the historic district south of Setucket Road has been exempted from historic review for solar panels on roofs less than 50 feet long, Lomenzo said.

But Lomenzo admits even he is not the final word on what goes up in the historic district. In the vote on whether solar panels should be allowed on the Dennis police station, he voted against approval.

“I don’t think we have to win them all,” he said. “I think we just have to be consistent in what our guidelines say.”

The most publicized dispute over renewable energy and historic sites is the plan by Cape Wind Associates LLC to locate 10 wind turbines in the Sound.

Opponents contend the project will affect historic and tribal sites. Cape Wind is waiting on a federal review of those concerns before it can receive the go-ahead from the Department of the Interior.

“As a resident of Cape Cod, I would just say I’m puzzled why there would be a conflict between wind power and historic preservation,” Cape Wind spokesman Mark Rodgers said. “There were once 1,000 working windmills on Cape Cod in the early 1800s.”

Although the look of new turbines is obviously different, the basic idea is the same, he said.

Efforts by the state to clarify the regulatory landscape for projects, including the Energy Facilities Siting Reform Act intended to decrease the time of permitting for wind energy projects, would likely be welcomed by everyone, Rodgers said.

Despite delays and other setbacks for renewable-energy projects caused by historic-based objections, historic committees are going to be able to say no to the new technologies, said Liz Argo, a renewable-energy and sustainable building practices consultant from Orleans.

And waiting for technologies that will make it easier to hide renewable-energy projects from view is “clearly not an option,” she said.

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