Wendy and Perrin Todd began building their dream house on family land on the east side of Mars Hill back in 2005. Talk of a wind farm development going up just behind their house was already in the air, but Wendy Todd says she and her husband were supportive of the project. "We thought it was fascinating. We thought, 'Wow, what a good idea!' We really did. We thought, the renewable energy, the job creation. I think we bought into the whole they're part of the answer to saving the planet."
But when the clearing and blasting began, soon followed by the erection of 28 turbines, each measuring nearly 400 feet tall, Todd says she began to wonder if she and her neighbors had been misled. "The visual devastation has just been really hard. When the turbines were first talked about I don't think any of us understood how large they were because there's nothing in Aroostook County that even comes close to relating to their size. And the mockups that were done at town meetings were all from three miles or better away. So it didn't give you the perspective of what it was going to be like to live beside them. It gave you a perspective of what they would look like as you were entering Mars Hill and different views from around Mars Hill."
Soon Todd says the intermittent sounds and shadow flicker from the turbines began to wear on her nerves. State regulations say the turbines are not to exceed 50 decibles at the project's property line, but Todd says sometimes the so-called "blade thump" is loud enough to be heard over her dishwasher and three children playing. At the time of this reporter's visit, the turbines were barely moving and could not be heard in or outside of her home. But Todd says turbines are loudest in the winter months.
"Turbine noise sounds like a jet, but it fills the air," Todd explains. "Now if you have anywhere from 24 hours to 3 to 5 days of bad turbine noise, symptoms start to appear. So with sleeplessness and edginess - because it wears on you and gets under your skin and it drives you crazy - so you start to get short with people and angry with people. Stress in the house is the best way to describe it for us."
The Todd Residence in Mars Hill. Photo by Anne Ravana.
Todd and 16 of her neighbors have recently filed a civil suit in Superior Court in Caribou against First Wind, two construction firms and the Town of Mars Hill. They allege that they were not properly notified of the construction, blasting, operation and planning of the wind turbines and they want compsensation for what they say is a resulting drop in their property values along with emotional and physical distress.
First Wind Spokesman John Lamontagne says he cannot comment on the suit, but says his company is proud of the development and the clean energy it generates. "It's currently delivering power to about 20,000 homes in New England. It's clean, renewable power. Second, this project in particular delivers half a million dollars to the town of Mars Hill every year. That's a pretty significant chunk of change to a town like Mars Hill and taxpayers have seen their tax bills drop because of this project."
Lamontagne says all First Wind's projects involve a lengthy review process with the Maine Department of Environmental Protection and regular meetings with townspeople. "We strive to be a good partner in the communities where we locate. And we have many supporters in Mars Hill. I think there are a lot of folks who are happy with the project and happy with the work that we've done there. We've met several times with neighbors to hear their concerns and work with them. And again, we're proud of the project and we feel that a lot of folks in Mars Hill are very happy with it."
The Mars Hill Town Manager declined to comment on this story.
Most of the plaintiffs live within a half mile of the turbines and while most have filed a single suit as a group, three have filed individual suits. In addition to noise complaints, Wendy Todd says many of her neighbors suffer from insomnia, depression and headaches related to the presence of the wind turbines. She says she'd consider moving, but she says her property value has dropped by 30 percent and she doesn't think anyone would want to buy her house.
"Would we move? Yeah, I guess we'd move but we've lived here all our whole life. Where would we go? How would we start over? And most people at this point are trapped in their homes. I mean, you know you hear stories of other families who have abandoned their homes. I can understand that. And most people roll their eyes. No, it's real. It's true. I can understand why they feel they have no other choice but to pack their bags and abandon their homes."
It's an emotional subject for Todd, but she says she's not opposed to wind projects in general. She just wants the state to set stricter rules with regard to the siting of wind farms, miles from any home.