Candidates split on wind farm, infrastructure matters

Mon, 10/18/2010 - 4:00am
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10/16/10 - Saturday afternoon’s Candidate Forum, which drew a large crowd that filled the school cafeteria, covered a range of issues with wind turbines and town infrastructure eliciting the strongest and most varied responses.

The questions were posed by Block Island Residents Association President Bill Penn (taken from the BIRA membership), Block Island Times editor Peter Voskamp and from audience members.

First Warden candidate Terry Mooney (D), second warden candidate Les Slate (I) and Sean McGarry (D), running for a seat on the council, presented a united front against both the Deepwater Wind windfarm proposed for three miles off the island and the zoning change at the transfer station that would allow a land-based turbine.

First Warden Kim Gaffett (I), Second Warden Ray Torrey (D), and councilor Peter Baute (I), all running as an incumbents, stood their ground in favor of both the wind farm and wind power in general.

Republican Town Council candidates, including Amelia Verna Littlefield and incumbents Ken Lacoste and Dick Martin, offered nuanced views on both — though all three favored a cable before a wind farm.

Mooney strongly denounced the process taken by the state, both in the selection of developer Deepwater and in creating the law that forced the Public Utilities Commission to reconsider the Power Purchase Agreement between Deepwater and National Grid. He called the state actions “illegal” and vowed to pursue a stand-alone cable saying he would “introduce legislation” at the state level.

Slate said that while he supports wind energy in theory he had issues with Deepwater as a company and with the location chosen for the wind farm. Addressing the question of a land-based turbine he said that he would be against one sited at the transfer station.

McGarry, who is a co-operator of the transfer station, agreed that the transfer station was not a good site for a land-based turbine and referenced the will of Jack Gray saying he would “never alter the intentions of a donated piece of land.”

McGarry also voiced his opposition to Deepwater as a company calling the project a potential “environmental disaster” and said that the island community “cannot allow our viewshed to be desecrated.”

Gaffett, on the other hand, said the Deepwater project presented too many benefits to Block Island for it to be dismissed. She said a cable to the mainland was the only way to solve the island’s energy issues, which she thought would be accomplished fastest and at the best-cost allocation with the Deepwater project. However, Gaffett said her support wasn’t limited to the cable but extended to the benefits of wind power coming to the island, which she said would have Block Island “leading the nation in energy independence.”

Torrey said that with the consistently windy conditions around Block Island it made sense to support wind energy. He also agreed that a cable was needed to bring down the price of electricity and said that supporting the Deepwater project was the “only viable way Block Island will see a mainland electricity cable.” On the other hand, he said that a good feasibility study and overwhelming public support would be required for him to support a land-based turbine.

Baute also said a significant number of steps would need to be taken before determining the viability of a land-based turbine. Baute reiterated his support of the offshore project both for the cable it would bring, and also because of the economic benefit to the island and state that the new wind industry would bring.

The Republican candidates took less strident approaches to the wind issue, supporting aspects of the project while denouncing others.

Lacoste stated his position in opening remarks saying, “I have voted for wind power and against wind power.” While he supported the wind farm initially, he ended up voting against supporting Deepwater after the second round of PUC hearings because he considered the process to have been corrupted. Lacoste and Martin both voted against the zone change at the transfer station.

Lacoste was especially adamant in his position that a stand-alone cable was not out of reach. In arguably the most energetic response of the night Lacoste called for a “can-do” attitude following several candidate statements that a cable without the wind farm was unrealistic.

Martin, who has recused himself on Deepwater issues due to his employment by the Block Island Power Company, said that the island desperately needs a cable and “a cable without the wind farm will be a hard battle.”

Littlefield, who uses a land-based turbine at her own home, said that she was not sure the island was benefiting enough from the Deepwater project for her to support it.

Other issues

The issue of infrastructure was split along incumbent/challenger lines. While everyone agreed there were critical issues the next council would need to deal with, incumbents defended their record on infrastructure improvement while the challengers pointed to areas in need of attention.

Baute listed a number of the current council’s accomplishments, from overseeing the completion of the new Town Hall “on budget,” to the renovation of Heinz Field and finally to the Old Harbor renovation project, which began this week.

Torrey touted the council’s work with the Washington Regional Planning Council to have an energy audit conducted on all town buildings. He hoped the upgrades from those audits could reduce the town’s energy expenditure by as much as 20 percent.

Mooney was strongly critical of the state of the town beach pavilion and the fire barn; Littlefield pointed out a number of potential liability issues stemming from roads falling into disrepair.

In response to a question about the escalating school budget nearly all the candidates pointed out that state law required level funding and, with mandated wage increases and benefits, the school budget was being held as tight as possible.

Gaffett said that though the school budget did increase this year the Town Council was able to cut nearly $100,000 from its initial budget request because of a budget surplus from the previous year.

McGarry, currently a School Committee member, pointed out that the school budget, as a percentage of the town’s total budget was much lower than most mainland towns — in the 40 percent range as opposed to 70 or 80 percent. He went on to say that as a Town Council member he would prioritize community services like the school and Early Learning Center in the budget process.

Deer, police and budget

On the issue of increased deer eradication all the candidates agreed that controlling the herd through safe hunting practices was the best way to proceed. Gaffett offered her support of experimenting with limited weekend hunting as well as managed hunts on town and state owned properties like Black Rock and Rodman’s Hollow. However, Gaffett said there was no way to “eradicate all the deer at a safe level we are all comfortable with, but we can do our best to get as many as possible.”

The candidates again came to agreement over the issue of police support for summer crowd control. They praised the job that Chief Vincent Carlone has done specifically with the large July 4 crowds below the Surf Hotel. As Mooney said, there was “violent agreement in praise of [Carlone].”

Martin said that given the town’s budget constraints, the best way to increase police presence during busy summer weekends was with state troopers. While their presence was a great help this summer, Martin said the town should “lean on the state” for more support.

Following a question about increasing taxes to cover the town’s rising expenses the candidates explained that due to state law Rhode Island towns are limited in how much they can increase the property tax rate.

McGarry explained that under the law there is a provision to apply for an exemption, which he said he would take advantage of if he were elected. However, Baute said he thought the law was helpful because it made the council tailor the budget more carefully since it was limited in its tax increase.

Lacoste said that the town could control its budget by “sharpening the pencils” and making the difficult choices of what lines to cut. He also said that he would like community members to be more involved in the budget process since they are ultimately the ones voting at the Financial Town Meeting.

The candidates also discussed requiring town employees pay a portion of their health insurance premiums. McGarry said that school employees are already required to do so and he would like to see that continue at the town level.

Most of the candidates were in agreement though Baute pointed out that whatever the council decided could still change following negotiations with the employees’ union.

Gaffett was the only candidate who took the position that covering the entire premium was beneficial to the town. She cited the already difficult living conditions on the island and said that generous benefits helped draw qualified candidates. Lacoste said that before supporting the idea he would need to see how it affected the bottom line — would the town have to pay its employees more in order to cover the insurance premiums?

Though public access to the shore was not brought up via a question, several candidates nevertheless mentioned the issue in their opening and closing remarks. Both Baute and Torrey said they believed that the issue was important though somewhat overblown as of late. Torrey said that it was an issue where a lot could be accomplished with a relatively small investment.

Gaffett also touched on access, saying that beach access on Block Island was better than many communities on the East Coast. “Access is a right for everyone on the island and we have to work to make sure it is not abused,” she said.

Mooney said that it was one of his chief concerns along with an electricity cable and town infrastructure.

The candidate forum was the first of two; the second will be held on Tuesday, October 26 at 7 p.m. at the school and will follow a slightly altered format, devoting the first hour to first and second warden candidates with the second hour on the candidates at large.