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Tuesday, August 14, 2012

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, Episode 6

Mother Gooser & Friends
By Robert Yarnall

Read the rest of the Whiskey Tango Foxtrot series:
Episode 1 – Getting Ready To Fish

Episode 2 – Watchaug Bites
Episode 3 – Avoiding Car Sickness
Episode 4 – Bait & Switch (Not!)
Episode 5 – Still Baiting, Still Switching…
Episode 6 – Mother Gooser & Friends
Episode 7 – Under the Radar with L-T
Episode 8 – Steering Committee Syndrome Unleashed, The Prelude
Episode 9 – Steering Committee Syndrome Unleashed, The Kiss
Episode 10 – Snagged on the Epilog Epic-Log

Once upon a time, in a quaint New England town, a few dozen citizens gathered to enjoy a late afternoon presentation by a wind energy company spokesperson. He was preaching the benefits of wind turbines, introducing his product as the safest, most practical, most cost-effective alternative to fossil fuels currently available on the planet.

The concept of wind energy is immediately grasped by virtually everybody. The idea of producing electricity by spinning coils of tightly wound copper wires within a magnetic field is one of the first science demonstrations school children experience. Fifth graders get it and from that point on, most people are pretty comfortable with the topic.

So when a well-spoken wind turbine manufacturer’s rep began a perfunctory PowerPoint demonstration with the requisite image of a bucolic Dutch windmill gracing the countryside, who could argue with that? Update the Dutch version to its present day 125’ counterpart, about the same size as a cell tower, throw in a couple of boilerplate charts & graphs to support environmental and economic benefits, and what’s not to like?

Grabbed the bait & bit hard; reel this fish in. Went home that afternoon, called up a couple of my neighbors, told them, “Hey, we can live with this. No problem. Way better than 200 condos…”

There's a couple of old sayings in a free market economy. Call them “consumer advisories” if you prefer: (1) if something seems too good to be true, it probably is, and (2) let the buyer beware.

So, time to digress, no deadlines style…

Tax Assessor’s Map 17, Lot 186, commonly referred to as Whalerock, was acquired by the Narragansett Electric Company for the sole purpose of running power transmission lines from the site of a proposed nuclear energy plant sited on Ninigret Pond.

After the nuke facility proposal was scuttled (see WTF Episode 5), Charlestown developer Lawrence LeBlanc eventually acquired the 81acre parcel. Town zoning allowed approximately 30 single-family homes. But LeBlanc was thinking big, much bigger…

In 2002, LeBlanc proposed a condominium community consisting of 200 housing units on the parcel. The project was called Ninigret Hamlet. The Narragansetts must have been duly impressed with this inclusive nod to their heritage.

Ninigret Hamlet v1.0 required both a town zoning change as well as a wetlands variance, the latter to be considered by the Rhode Island Coastal Resources Management Council, another regulatory body that functions either cooperatively or competitively with RI DEM, depending on the politics of the proposal. Same old, same old.

Concerned about the scope of the project and its impact on the water supply of the neighborhood, a small group of abutters consisting primarily of East Quail Run residents met under the auspices of then-town councilor Harriet Allen. Ms. Allen, a former IBM-er who had purchased a home off Old Coach Road a few years earlier, had anointed herself as a resident expert on any topic common to world civilization. (Sound familiar?)

The Quail Runners, of which I was one, anted up a few hundred bucks each to hire some Harriet-approved lawyer we never heard of. He and our canceled checks promptly disappeared into the labyrinth of the district court system, never to be heard from again. (Uh-oh, that sounds familiar, too.)

Meanwhile, Ruth Platner, in full stride as Charlestown’s Official Gatekeeper, networked with the Conservation Law Foundation in June of 2006 to bury Larry’s project in bureaucratic mud up to his eyebrows. (Don’t bother to say it, it’s a given…)

Back to the present…

Ninigret Hamlet v2.0, repackaged as Whalerock Renewable Energy and marketed as a green energy alternative to foreign oil imports, is a textbook example of something that seems too good to be true.

After digesting a lazy afternoon, fairy-tale perfect wind energy PowerPoint, what was not to like? Great meal, great deal. Kudos to the chef!

But then came the check. You know, the reality check.

Listen, when a single 125’ tall entry-level windmill is replaced by a pair of industrial wind energy generators larger than the support towers of the Newport Bridge, you haven’t just been baited & switched. You’ve been drawn & quartered.

It turned out that what we were promised was a mere child’s play version of the actual adult toy that, once installed, would screw the neighborhood property owners up their collective keister.

It was one giant step beyond NIMBY status, an unintentionally provocative bait that attracted a large group of angry fish who began to school themselves about the technology and marketing of wind energy.

Somehow, the group settled on the name Illwind. Hmmm…

At the time, I was bemused at the fart-evoking imagery of the name Illwind. But as events unfolded, I realized it could be appropriately utilized within a variety of contexts, some of which are still be evolving.

Unbeknown to all but a few, the Illwindri website cast a much larger net than local political analysts have yet to discern. It was neither conceptualized nor controlled by the self-appointed political leaders of the Sachem Passage neighborhood activist group, similarly called Illwind. (More on this stealthy topic in future episodes.)

An experienced fisherman will tell you that big fish rarely show themselves. That’s how they got big in the first place. Big fish lurk beneath the cover of weeds or in the shadows of overhanging tree branches. They seek the protection of fortresses of submerged boulders and rotted timbers. They lay low, usually lured out of their sanctuaries only by real threats to their territories.

The fish you do see most often are the inexperienced ones. They impulsively grab any old lure dropped in front of them. If they don’t figure things out quickly, they get eaten by a bigger fish or nabbed by a B-level angler like me, who entice them out of their element for a few seconds of ambush before releasing them back into their pond. Once back in their aqua-fresh think tanks, they hopefully smarten up before they take the bait again.

Just like the rest of us.

Let the buyer beware.

Whiskey Tango Foxtrot, over