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Block Island, R.I. - With just 1,000 men, women and children accustomed to - and often preferring - the seclusion their permanent residence affords, Block Island doesn't often have issues big enough to draw even one-tenth of its year-round population out of their homes on a foggy weeknight to spend three hours in an overcrowded government chamber.
But Wednesday's hearing at New Shoreham Town Hall offered the first chance in two years for residents to publicly take a side on the 30-megawatt turbine wind farm proposed for a site 3 miles off the southeast shore. It also was the first litmus test of island support since the $300 million project to erect five 650-foot turbines entered the permitting phase.
The project is on track to be the nation's first offshore wind farm, though similar turbines have been operating in Denmark, Germany and elsewhere for several years.
"We've had a lot of arguments about this over our dinner tables, but I've seen a lot of businesses and a lot of people come and go on this island because of our electricity bills," said Dick Martin, a former town councilor and employee of the Block Island Power Co., which supplies the island's electricity with generators powered by diesel fuel that is trucked over on ferries from the mainland. "I am for this project."
With an audience of about 100 of their neighbors, 24 speakers said Deepwater Wind's proposal would benefit the island economically and environmentally, while setting an example for the rest of the country.
"Whatever Block Island can do to offset emissions is just a small step. But in the long run, if everybody takes a small step, we'll get a big step," said Town Councilor Norris Pike, who described himself as one of the island's "cod fishing aristocracy."
"It's not our generation that will feel the effects (of climate change), but our children and grandchildren that we're going to leave this world to. Are they going to look back and blame us?" Pike asked.
Another 12 speakers argued that the turbines would compromise the views that are a main asset of the island's tourism-based economy and expressed skepticism and mistrust of Deepwater Wind. Three others did not express outright support or opposition but instead urged caution as the process proceeds.
"Don't let anybody rush this project," said David Chatowsky, who described himself as an artist, naturalist and builder of some of the structures used for Deepwater testing equipment. Several speakers qualified their support with admonitions that decision-makers ensure the company sets aside adequate funds to decommission the turbines when they no longer produce power.
That point also was made by the Town Council in its letters of support to state agencies that will rule on Deepwater permits, Town Manager Nancy Dodge said. The five-member council supports the project 3-2, she said.
Objections and skepticism
The hearing was called by the state's Department of Environmental Management, which is considering an application from Deepwater to dredge about 20 miles of trenches for cables connecting the five turbines to Block Island, and from there to landfall at Narragansett Town Beach and on to a National Grid substation.
Ronald Gagnon, chief at the DEM's Office of Customer & Technical Assistance, said an April 24 hearing on the application in Narragansett drew a similar turnout, but more of the speakers were opposed.
At the Block Island hearing, objections ranged from those voiced by Linda Spak and Edith Littlefield Blane, who feared the dredging could weaken the fragile Mohegan Bluffs area, that turbine lights would degrade the island's "black velvet nights" and that the views from Southeast Lighthouse would be so damaged that the site would no longer be attractive for weddings and other events.
"We're going to kill what is so unique and special about our geographic isolation," said Sean McGarry, one of the two councilors opposed to the project.
Christopher Warfel, the other councilor against the project, said the anticipated benefits of the project have been overstated: both the up to 40 percent drop in electricity rates - currently three to four times what mainland residents pay - and the improvement of power service. The cable to Narragansett would be Block Island's first power connection to the mainland, a $20 million to $40 million infrastructure upgrade the island has been seeking for 20 years.
On Tuesday, the Narragansett Town Council voted to put off until June 3 negotiations with Deepwater over easements through town property for the cable. Town Manager Richard Kerbel said councilors want to gather more information on the proposal.
Permits under review
In a statement issued this week, Jeff Grybowski, Deepwater's chief executive officer, said that in response to concerns raised in Narragansett, it will propose an underground cable through town. In its earlier proposal, the cable was above ground.
In addition to the dredging permit and easement proposal, Deepwater also is seeking permits from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the state Coastal Resources Management Council for the main turbine structures.
"All the permits we need are in and under review," Deepwater spokeswoman Meaghan Wims said Thursday, adding that the next public forum will be a CRMC hearing, not yet scheduled.
Several Block Islanders supporting the wind farm said the reality of climate change convinces them that the island must do its part to cut fossil fuel emissions that emit greenhouse gases. They urged opponents to look beyond their concerns about views to the bigger picture.
"Let us be leaders, not laggers," said Jane Emsbro, who pointed to the example of her husband Jan's native Denmark, which derives about 28 percent of its electricity from offshore wind farms that initially drew complaints but now are a source of pride. "Block Island has the enormous opportunity to inspire others while reaping environmental and economic benefits ourselves."
Two speakers drew on professional expertise - Jules Craynock, a retired National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration research oceanographer, who said he would welcome the turbines, and Henry Dupont, a wind energy project consultant who said he reviewed Deepwater's application and endorses its methods for installing the cables and minimizing environmental impacts.
The youngest speaker was Maya Veldman Wilson, a school-aged resident who read a poem calling the turbines "heroes of the future" and "giants" that speak through the wind.
"They only spin. They don't hurt anybody," she said.
Former postmaster and project supporter Fred Leeder, who said he moved to the island 30 years ago with "a duffel bag full of clothes and a couple of milk crates full of books," and now lives off the grid in a house he built himself, prompted laughter at the conclusion of his otherwise serious remarks.
To those who argue that Block Island shouldn't be used as the guinea pig for a first-of-its-kind project, Leeder said, consider the pioneers.
"Somebody had to get on the Wright Brothers' plane and give it a try, and some Indian had to eat the first quahog," he said. "People say this wind turbine project divides us, but what divides us is what brings us together. After this project, we can still fight about the deer and the mopeds and whether to use chemical fertilizer on our fields. We're good at this."