PORTLAND — The School Department still faces strong opposition from residents of a condominium complex who are opposed to a plan to test wind speeds near East End Community School, because they fear it will lead to a more than 200-foot turbine on Munjoy Hill.

School officials met with representatives of the Promenade Towers condominium association’s board of
directors and residents on March 19, but some residents of the 80-unit complex said the presentation seemed more like a sales pitch, rather than an attempt to address their concerns. 

Portland was one of two cities selected last summer for a free wind study
through Efficiency Maine, the conservation arm of the state Public Utilities
Commission. Auburn, the other community chosen, has already installed its wind tower at a city transfer station. Portland’s test was held up by neighborhood opposition. 

School Department Facilities Director Doug Sherwood said he hopes the district will have the necessary approvals and permits to begin testing wind speeds at the corner of North Street and Eastern Promenade by late May or early June.

Before that can happen, though, the district needs a zoning variance for a 200-foot tower to be placed near the elementary school. Current zoning laws impose a 35-foot height limit. The request was previously scheduled for a Planning Board hearing on Jan. 27, but was postponed to allow neighborhood meetings.

“We’re reasonably comfortable the process can and will move forward,” Sherwood said. 

He said the condominium association members seemed to appreciate the educational opportunity the wind tower would offer students, but they expressed concerns about the health and safety impacts of a turbine in a dense residential area.

Sherwood, however, said he considers those concerns premature, but not insignificant.

“They were hoping to achieve, and we’re meeting subsequently to discuss, what’s next and what could be next,” he said. “But the real issue is we don’t know anything without a (wind) assessment.” 

Condo association board member John Rastl said he was disappointed with last week’s meeting, because Sherwood didn’t make an effort to address the association’s concerns about the health and safety of potentially having a wind turbine next to a school and a residential area.

Those concerns range from ice throw from turbine blades to the effects of Wind Turbine Syndrome, a disputed malady reportedly caused by low-frequency vibrations and light flicker of turbine blades. A turbine’s effect on property values is also a concern, he said. 

Rastl said research shows that  at least a 1.5-mile setback is needed to limit a turbine’s impact. 

“I was disappointed with the presentation,” Rastl said. “(Sherwood’s) presentation centered around erecting the tower. He didn’t address any of our health and safety issues at all.”

Instead, he said the presentation largely focused on the educational value the tower would have for students. However, Rastl said the same educational value could be derived from a tower that meets current zoning requirements.

“Why would you do a test unless you plan to put up a wind turbine if the wind is strong enough,” he said.   

Sherwood had a similar meeting on Feb. 28 with the Munjoy Hill Neighborhood Association, which expressed support for the plan. 

MHNO President Will Gorham said about 50 people attended the School Department’s presentation. When it was over, Gorham said he asked for a show of hands on moving the project forward. 

“Almost every hand in the room went up,” Gorham said. “It was very encouraging. Most people thought it was a good thing.”

Gorham said that some residents were upset that those opposing the study are doing by using case studies from other countries. However, condo resident Steve Thomsen, who attended both meetings, said Wind Turbine Syndrome is well documented in the United States, where pediatrician Nina Pierpont, who coined the phrase, is writing a book about the issue. 

“The issues are well documented on this side of the world,” he said.

Thomsen said he would rather see the School Department pursue tidal power, calling it a more consistent and safer source of alternative energy. 

Neither Rastl nor Thomsen were swayed by examples of turbines already placed on school grounds in Hull and Medford, Mass. Rastl said Hull’s turbine is on a peninsula and Medford’s turbine hasn’t been there long enough to get an accurate picture. 

Sherwood said he plans to schedule one more neighborhood meeting before going to the Planning Board.

Randy Billings can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or [email protected]

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