Deepwater Wind agrees to pay town consultant fees

Mon, 07/13/2009 - 4:15am
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07/11/09 - Executives from wind farm developer Deepwater Wind agreed Monday to cover the cost of town consultants to study the impacts of a wind farm three miles southeast of Block Island. How much the private company would provide was left undetermined, but Managing Director Jim Lanard said during a Town Council meeting that the money would come with “no strings attached.”

The consultants would formulate a town position as Deepwater moves through a hearing process at the state Public Utilities Commission. Lanard agreed with First Warden Kim Gaffett’s view that the town should not incur costs to study a farm project that the state initiated. He added that it was common for utility companies to pay for town consultants when proposing a major project.

Deepwater envisions the farm of five to eight turbines sitting about three miles off the coast and including a tie-in to the island and the mainland. Deepwater executives told the council that through a complex series of sales agreements island customers would end up with electricity rates cheaper than they pay now. [See related article on Page 4.]

And while there is little dispute that most residents want lower electric bills — island customers paid the highest electric rates in the nation last summer — whether or not residents want turbines viewable from their homes is another matter.

Resident Sean McGarry warned the council that not everyone favored the project and the council should wait for the results of a town-conducted survey before throwing its weight behind the farm and another, larger one, 15 miles to the east.

“I think everyone’s just waiting for an ad in the paper that says ‘voice your opposition here,’” McGarry said.

He and Block Island Power Co. owner Cliff McGinnes Sr. also cautioned that accepting Deepwater money may lead residents to perceive that the town consultants’ work as biased in favor of the company. Gaffett and Lanard insisted the entities would establish parameters to ensure the neutrality of the advice. A similar process is already used when major developments come before the Planning and Zoning boards. The boards may compel the developer to pay a town consultant to provide an objective overview of the proposal.

As for the exact amount Deepwater would contribute, Lanard said outside of the meeting that the company would wait for consultants to provide the town estimates for the cost of their services.

Apartments allowed over restaurants

In a unanimous decision, the council amended the zoning ordinance to allow apartments over restaurants, with the caveat that 40 percent of the apartments be designated for seasonal or year-round employees.

The Planning Board said the change could encourage the development of employee housing and a village-type community in town. The board recommended the change after it could not find a legal avenue for the owner of the Fishead building to create two apartments above a new restaurant.

Although the amendment passed, councilors expressed some trepidation about removing the requirement that property owners hold 20,000 square feet of land for each apartment. The council ultimately voted to strike the clause, but it left some worrying that it would lead to dense developments.

There was also concern that the new amendment could complicate matters in situations such as the vacant Surf Hotel. Land Use Solicitor Don Packer said a developer looking to renovate the Surf as a restaurant on the first floor with residences above might need to set aside 40 percent of the units as employee housing depending on the specific plan. While councilors worried that might scare off a potential buyer, the worries were not enough to scuttle the amendment.

Besides, Packer said, the new owner could always ask the Town Council to grant a planned development, which creates a special set of rules specifically for one project.

Other business

• Fire Chief Kirk Littlefield told the council that the department planned to apply for a grant from the Federal Emergency Management Agency that would cover the entire cost of rebuilding the Fire Barn. Littlefield said the building’s floor is sinking and its ceiling cracked. He also hopes to build a new dispatch operations center, construct showers for firefighters and install public restrooms.

• The council agreed to sponsor the annual Mary D. Ball. The ball, scheduled for August 1 at the Narragansett Inn, raises money for the fund that assists island residents facing financial difficultly.

• The council set a public hearing for September 16 to discuss changes to the zoning ordinance that would adjust the formula governing building lot coverage for houses on small lots of record.