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The winds of war
The battle over the Nantucket Sound wind farm

On a late-June afternoon in Hyannis, Cape Codís famous breeze cools tourists and residents alike while the rest of Massachusetts sweats. On Main Street, restaurants, ice-cream shops, and novelty stores bustle with activity. One town over, on Craigville Beach, determined vacationers and dedicated regulars enjoy every last minute of comfort before true summer swelter begins.

Save for some lawn signs and storefront stickers, itís easy to forget that this region is embroiled in one of the nationís most important policy debates. But walk up to people and ask them about the cause of the controversy ó the proposed Nantucket Sound wind farm ó and itís easy to identify the projectís opponents. Of course I support renewable/alternative/wind energy, they say, right off the bat. Then they give themselves away: But not here.

In November 2001, Cape Wind Associates announced a grand plan to build an offshore wind-energy generator ó the nationís first and the worldís largest ó in the federal waters of Nantucket Sound, between the southern shore of Cape Cod and the northern edges of Nantucket and Marthaís Vineyard. When complete, the project would consist of 130 wind turbines, whose blades, at their highest point, would rise 417 feet above the sea. A little less than five miles from the nearest shore, the parallel rows of turbines would cover 24 of the soundís 300 square miles.

Energy harnessed from the whirring blades would be fed to New Englandís electric grid. There, wind energy could partially replace other energy sources ó such as natural gas or coal ó and provide almost 75 percent of the Cape and Islandsí electricity needs.

It wouldnít reduce residentsí electric bills by much, but supporters say the wind farm is worth it, as it would help reduce the regionís consumption of fossil fuels, while serving as a national model to lead the United States toward a more-sustainable energy future.

The opposition puts forth environmental, economic, and legal concerns. But more often than not, these arguments are eclipsed by aesthetic anxiety. Through years of occasionally bitter, always passionate debate, one theme has stuck. No matter how many problems the anti-wind-farmers present, or how loudly they protest, their objections often seem to boil down to "not in my back yard" (NIMBY) ó opponents of the wind farm, it appears, simply donít want to have to look at it.

Indeed, itís difficult to reconcile fierce opposition to a renewable-energy project with professions of environmentalism. But thatís what anti-winders ó from members of the Alliance To Protect Nantucket Sound to individual opponents ó are trying to do. "The Alliance supports wind power as an energy source, and promotes many forms of renewables," the organization insists on its Web site. Yet while opponents share many traditional green organizationsí objectives, such as supporting clean energy or protecting the water-quality of the sound from pollution and oil spills, thereís one major difference ó they just donít want to see a windmill on their picture-postcard beaches.

A long-winded debate

Driving along Cape Codís winding, beachfront roads, itís not uncommon to see SAVE OUR SOUND signs dotting the manicured lawns along the southern shore. Many of these houses are occupied only part of the year; the population of the Cape and Islands can nearly triple, from 250,000 to close to 700,000, during peak vacation times.

For many, these waterfront vacation homes figure as the crux of the Cape wind debate. Wind-farm supporters ó represented by the developer, Cape Wind Associates, and Clean Power Now, a 4700-strong grassroots organization ó insist that wealthy homeowners and vacationers compose the primary opposition group, the Alliance To Protect Nantucket Sound.

To some extent, newspaper reports and the Allianceís tax returns back up that claim, showing big donations from rich families ó who certainly enjoy their ocean views. According to the groupís 2003 federal tax return, some individuals gave it as much as $110,000. The nonprofitís board of directors includes some of the regions best-known ó and wealthiest ó names, such as Christy Mihos, who founded Cape Codís Christyís convenience stores and owns several million dollarsí worth of waterfront property. Another famous Cape family, the Egans, has four members (including a yacht-yard owner and a real-estate developer) on the board.

Or take Great Island, an exclusive, no-trespassing region of the Cape that extends into Nantucket Sound. In May, Cape Cod Times reporter Ethan Zindler found that three family foundations connected with Great Island property owners donated a collective $168,000 to the Alliance in 2002 and 2003.

Anti-winders opened their wallets for candidates from both parties in 2002 and 2004; the big-time money, however, went to Republicans. For example, in 2004, Alliance board member John Egan gave $20,000 to the Republican National Committee alone, according to Opensecrets.org, the Web site of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which monitors campaign finance. Thatís not counting Eganís multiple donations to individual candidates, including $2000 each to George W. Bush and Ralph Nader. Board member Barbara Birdsey, who founded a local wildlife trust in West Barnstable, gave a more modest $500 to Howard Dean.

But itís not just about money. Regardless of their politics, anti-winders claim to embrace clean energy. Then they turn around and run a "dogged, relentless campaign" of misinformation and fear-mongering ó one that stems from a serious case of NIMBY-ism, says Cape Wind Associates spokesman Mark Rodgers.

"There is no question in my mind that the dominant issue is aesthetic," Rodgers says, sitting inside Cape Windís one-room Yarmouth Port office. "I think most of the other arguments are proxy arguments that are used by people who are self-conscious of the NIMBY argument."

Topping the NIMBY list, in terms of visibility, is Massachusetts senator Edward Kennedy. In 2001, Kennedy said, "I donít think America can just drill itself out of its current energy situation," and advocated "smart, comprehensive, common-sense approaches that balance the need to increase domestic energy supplies." However, the senator also vacations at his familyís famous compound in Hyannisport. Like other wind-farm opponents, he declares his support for clean energy in general: "I strongly support renewable energy, including wind energy, as a means of reducing our dependence on foreign oil and protecting the environment," Kennedy wrote in a 2003 Cape Cod Times opinion piece. But he "will continue to oppose wind farms off our shores until we put into place a coherent policy and process to guide offshore energy development," Kennedy spokeswoman Melissa Wagoner said in an e-mail.

(Meanwhile, Massachusettsís junior senator, John Kerry ó who also vacations in the area ó is waiting for more information to make the call. According to an e-mail from Kerry spokesman Setti Warren, "Senator Kerry has closely monitored the review process and maintains that the Cape Wind project should only proceed if a final, comprehensive environmental review shows that it will provide clean energy without harming the ocean environment or the communities of the Cape and Islands.")

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Issue Date: July 15 - 21, 2005
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