Turbines a 'civil rights' issue?

Concerned residents, city officials sound off on Johnston's towering wind energy development

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The towering wind turbines erected recently near the Central Landfill in Johnston can be seen from points across the Ocean State, providing tangible evidence of a rapidly changing energy landscape.

To many residents of Western Cranston, however, the turbines represent a threat to their health, quality of life and property values.

On Monday night, some residents of the area told members of the City Council they believe the location of the turbines – and the process through which the town of Johnston granted approval for their placement – constituted a civil rights violation.

And while indicating the city’s legal options are limited, officials pledged to continue working with the residents as they pursue their own challenge.

“The Johnston wind turbines are industrial in nature and are not compatible with a residential community,” Alpine Estates Drive resident Lynne Haughey told council members. “These turbines have been sited disregarding the health, welfare and safety of the residents impacted …We are now known as ‘Turbine Estates,’ funny to some, but not to the homeowners living there.”

“The situation is unacceptable on so many levels, and we need you guys to step up,” Cassandra Court resident Renee Petrone said. “Help the citizens of Western Cranston shut these monsters down.”

“There is a civil rights violation here,” Apline Estates Drive resident Jamie Kuzman said.

The 21-megawatt, seven-turbine development by North Kingstown-based Green Development is the largest onshore wind farm in the state. Each turbine stands more than 500 feet tall at its highest point.

Resident concerns over the turbines were heard during the public comment portion of Monday’s council meeting. The body then suspended its rules to discuss the matter, which had been scheduled for discussion last month but did not appear on Monday’s agenda.

Assistant City Solicitor John Verdecchia told council members and residents that he has continued exploring the issue, but has found nothing to change his earlier opinion that the city has “very, very limited options at this point” in terms of recourse.

“It appears that the proper procedures were followed,” he said of the process through which the town of Johnston approved the turbines.

Many Western Cranston residents have questioned why they did not receive official notification of the project during the approval process, given the proximity of the turbine site to their neighborhoods and the visual impact of the structures.

Verdecchia said a longstanding provision of state law requires only abutters within 200 feet of a project to be notified.

“The problem here is that the zoning laws simply did not keep up with technology,” he said. “I don’t think anybody at that time [the existing law was written] could have envisioned solar farms, wind turbines, things of that nature.”

Verdecchia said he discovered during his research that the Johnston Zoning Board of Review granted a height variance for the turbine project. While that “did catch my eye” as a possible legal avenue, he said more would be needed to take the matter to court.

“There would be a tremendous amount of research that would need to be conducted … The city’s options are extremely limited,” he said. “The residents, I think, would have a better chance on their own, because they are personally affected.”

Verdecchia offered a colorful description of the turbines while saying he sympathizes with the concerned residents.

“Believe me, I can certainly understand where these residents are coming from … [the turbines] look like something out of ‘War of the Worlds.’ They’re actually frightening to look at,” he said.

Haughey asked the city to conduct noise and health assessments and to help residents secure meeting minutes and documentation from Johnston. The concerned residents indicated they have received some, but not all, of the documentation requested from Johnston.

Ward 4 Councilman Edward Brady questioned whether the city could pursue an expansion of the notification zone requirement beyond the current 200 feet in an effort to prevent similar situations in the future.

Verdecchia advised that such a change would need to come on the state level. “I don’t think there’s much a city or a town could do to extend that 200-foot barrier,” he said.

At Council President Michael Farina’s suggestion, Brady and Ward 3 Councilman John Donegan indicated they plan to draft a resolution asking the city’s representatives in the General Assembly to pursue the issue.

Farina also recommended the concerned residents take legal action to obtain the documentation they have not received from Johnston.

“I would recommend that you immediately sue the town of Johnston for violation of the state open meeting laws and file that complaint as soon as possible, because if they’re not giving you minutes from two years ago, they’re in clear violation of a law of the state,” he said.

He added later, “This council does support you … We’ll back you up when we can.”

Ward 6 Councilman Michael Favicchio suggested the American Civil Liberties Union of Rhode Island might provide a resource for the concerned citizens.

“Perhaps you could speak to the ACLU. They’re always willing to sue our city, so maybe they could sue Johnston for them. If there’s some civil rights issues and some open meetings violations, they tend to take those cases on, because the amount of research, as Solicitor Verdecchia mentioned, is extreme.”

Citywide Councilman Ken Hopkins urged the city to express its concerns to Johnston and its mayor, Joseph Polisena, through a formal correspondence.

“Obviously, we’re all frustrated with this … I don’t want anybody in the public to think we’re not on their side, or we’re not paying attention,” he said.

He added, “We need to put it in writing and document the concerns of our constituents, that we’re angry with the way Johnston has handled this.”

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