Representatives for the Town of Falmouth and residents debated the characteristics of turbine sound at the third hearing on a special permit for Wind 1 before the Falmouth Zoning Board of Appeals on Thursday last week.
The turbine, installed in 2010, is one of two owned by the town on Blacksmith Shop Road. Earlier this year, the Massachusetts Court of Appeals ruled that the town erred in erecting the turbine without a special permit. Wind 1 has been shut down for the duration of the special permit application process, per a cease-and-desist order issued by the zoning board. No special permit is being sought for Wind 2, an identical structure that was erected in 2012.
Christopher G. Senie, an attorney for turbine neighbors, described the “unique” sound pressures produced by wind turbines that have impacted abutters’ daily lives.
“We’re dealing with something other than what you can hear,” he said, adding that it is like “a very gentle weight or pressure on your chest or body cavity.”
Acoustical engineer Michael Bahtiarian of Noise Control Engineering or NCE, who was hired by several turbine neighbors, criticized an earlier presentation by acoustic engineer Christopher Menge of Harris Miller Miller & Hanson Inc., representing the town, saying that it failed to make a proper assessment of data.
According to Mr. Bahtiarian, complaints of sleep disturbance by turbine neighbors were due to the irregular variations of turbine noise.
“This is not rhythmic,” he said.
Low frequency data collected by NCE recorded infrasound from the turbines both inside and outside various nearby homes. When the turbines were turned off, Mr. Bahtiarian said, the sound disappeared completely. He said that the disturbance represented an “acoustic trespass,” or sound from an outside source entering a building.
Mr. Bahtiarian concluded that in his opinion, turbines produce a unique sound that envelops abutting buildings. Proper regulations are not in place for siting of the structures, he said.
Board member Kenneth H. Foreman asked what an appropriate distance would be between turbines and other buildings, and Mr. Bahtiarian said that he knows of one instance in which turbine sound was undetectable from a mile away.
Referring to neighbors of Wind 1, Mr. Bahtiarian said, “You can’t move my clients’ homes at this point.”
Despite the fact that various aspects of sound can be measured, the data presented by Mr. Bahtiarian does not prove that these characteristics are harmful, said Diane C. Tillotson, an attorney for the town. Furthermore, she said that the data referred to standards that were not in place when the turbine was erected.
“The question for you to determine is what makes sense in this case based on the science that comes before you,” Ms. Tillotson said.
Mr. Foreman asked how the nuisance section of the town bylaw was relevant in this case. In order for the sound to be a nuisance, Ms. Tillotson argued, it would have to be perceptible and disturbing in some way—for instance, she said, it would be a nuisance if it made people sick.
However, Mr. Foreman said that there is no reference in the bylaw to medical criteria. In fact, there is no definition of a nuisance, which Ms. Tillotson said is up to the board to determine.
Mr. Menge was invited to respond to Mr. Bahtiarian’s presentation. He argued that the form of measurement used was subjective and that sound levels detected inside neighboring homes would be low.
“I don’t dispute that they can be audible when it’s very, very quiet in the house, but when the air conditioning is running or a refrigerator is running, it’s not going to be audible,” Mr. Menge said.
Day O. Mount of Blacksmith Shop Road said that he took exception to implications that turbine sound was inaudible. He said that the sound has prevented him from using certain rooms in the house and, at times, has led him to sleep at other residences overnight. The irregular peaks of sound described by Mr. Bahtiarian, Mr. Mount said, helped him understand his experiences.
“We know the sound of a refrigerator. These are different sounds,” he said. “It’s so unpredictable. It makes it terribly difficult; it’s very stressful.”
One night, Mr. Mount said, he woke up feeling disoriented and did not know why. Upon consulting an acoustic engineer, he was told that the cause was likely infrasound from the turbines—but that he would have difficulty addressing the issue, as infrasound is not regulated in the United States.
Resident J. Malcolm Donald presented a copy of an e-mail correspondence he received through a Freedom of Information Act request, in which Peter Guldberg of Tech Environmental, Inc. requested a Massachusetts Clean Energy Center employee’s attendance at a meeting at HMMH on how to handle organized opposition to community wind projects. He asked Mr. Menge whether HMMH was still holding these meetings and, if so, how he could be considered a credible source.
The e-mail was from January 2011, Mr. Menge said, when the organizations were first receiving opposition to their work.
“Back then, we were taken a little bit aback by these strong feelings and the opposition coming about,” he said, adding that the purpose of the meeting was to address where the opposition was coming from. “I think it was very professional of us to have a meeting and to get people’s opinions out.”
The hearing will continue at the zoning board’s meeting on January 14.