A Cape Cod town that once considered its first wind turbine the crowning achievement of its climate protection plan came close to becoming the first community in the country to decide to tear its turbines down.
Falmouth's Town Meeting voted down a measure Tuesday night that would have authorized borrowing $14 million to dismantle two turbines.
The measure failed by a vote of 125-72. Town Clerk Michael Palmer said it needed a two-thirds majority to pass. If it had been approved, the borrowing question would have been put before voters in a May referendum.
It’s the first time any town in the country has considered taking down its turbines.
The Falmouth selectmen's board chair, Kevin Murphy, flatly calls the turbine project a failure. The board is backing efforts to dismantle the original turbine, which began spinning in 2010, and a newer one.
From the start, neighbors have complained about noise from the turbines. They also attribute a range of physical and mental health problems to them.
But other residents report no problems. Some in town say it's far too soon to tear down a critical renewable energy project they estimate could produce $450,000 in annual revenue through energy production and renewable energy certificates.
"It's pit neighbor against neighbor," Murphy said.
The American Wind Energy Association, which says it promotes wind energy as a clean source of electricity, said it's the first time any town has considered taking down its turbines. That's because such projects have such clear financial and environmental rewards, spokeswoman Ellen Carey said.
"People across the country are supportive of wind energy and are benefiting economically," she said.
Both turbines are built at the town's waste water treatment plant and provide power for it. The original turbine was the first municipal utility-scale turbine in Massachusetts.
Falmouth resident Mark Cool, who lives near the turbine site, said persistent headaches started as soon as it began running. He described some so penetrating he felt he needed "to drill a hole in my head to get some sort of relief."
The 54-year-old air traffic controller didn't link the turbines to his headaches until his neighbors began talking about similar symptoms.
Cool began a journal, recording variables such as wind direction and headache duration, eventually concluding the headaches occurred only when the wind put him in a turbine's wake.
In May 2012, 47 people told a board of health hearing about various problems they blamed on the turbines, including sleep deprivation, vertigo and memory loss. But 15 others said there were no problems.
Cool said he doesn't think there's science to substantiate negative effects from turbines.
In pushing for their removal, he points to what he said is indisputable, such as noise problems that led the town in May 2012 to shut the turbines down for 12 hours each night. A state study later concluded the turbines' decibel level was too high at one of its testing sites.
Murphy said the reduced hours mean the turbines now lose $100,000 a year.
Worse, Murphy said, is the corrosive town-wide division caused by the turbines, which he said taints any renewable energy plans. It's worth it, he said, to borrow the $14 million to get rid of what he calls symbols of failure.
"Any time (residents) ride by those wind turbines they're reminded of how divided this community is," he said. "We need to get rid of the division and move forward."
But Falmouth resident Megan Amsler said the debate has not split the town.
Amsler, who served on a town committee that devised ways to mitigate the turbines' impact, said a silent majority in Falmouth wants to keep the turbines. But a vocal minority has made it something Falmouth can't even agree to disagree about, she said.
There are far cheaper ways to deal with concerns about the turbines and keep them running, Amsler said. Options include scheduling their operation more precisely to minimize any effects on neighborhoods and buying out adjacent properties.
Amsler added that tearing down the turbines will set a horrible national precedent. Banks will get skittish about financing renewables if a project with the broad local support, like Falmouth's, can be quickly dismantled by a small group, she said.
"This will reverberate throughout the United States," Amsler said.
This program aired on April 10, 2013. The audio for this program is not available.