Words and emotions filled the air Monday night, when some 350 people packed the Martha's Vineyard Regional High School Performing Arts Center to air their views about the controversial Cape Wind project planned for Nantucket Sound.
Opinion split nearly straight down the middle among the 50-plus people who spoke at the public hearing, from local fishermen to high school students to powerful politicians. All spoke with passion and conviction.
"We are all stewards of the environment during our time here on earth, and must adhere to the maxim that we leave it in better condition than when we found it," said Edgartown selectman Arthur Smadbeck. "This project will leave for future generations a camp site much diminished," he added.
High school junior Emily Lindsey had a different take.
"You should all be embarrassed at the world you left us to live in," Ms. Lindsey said. "I can't vote and in this society I barely have a say, but to my elders I say stop exploiting the earth and future generations. Use wind."
The Vineyard forum opened a three-day blitz of public hearings sponsored by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as part of its review of the Cape Wind Associates plan to build a transfer substation and 130 wind turbines on Horseshoe Shoal. According to newspaper reports, the Vineyard hearing appeared more evenly divided than subsequent hearings in West Yarmouth and on Nantucket.
The purpose of the hearing was to allow Cape and Islands residents an opportunity to comment on the Army Corps draft environmental impact statement, released Nov. 9 and seen as widely favorable to Cape Wind. But most of the comment Monday was general and did not directly address the 3,800-page draft impact statement.
Proponents said the wind farm will improve air quality, combat global warming and serve as a symbolic step in the right direction for a nation overly dependent on foreign oil.
"Five generations of my family have enjoyed the beauty of Nantucket Sound, but I would like to see its beauty increased and usefulness enhanced," said the Rev. Alden Besse of Vineyard Haven. "Of course we can do nothing, continue polluting, the temperature goes up, the sea rises and there's no Nantucket Sound. That would be a solution, but something that none of us would like."
Opponents said they support renewable energy, but not in Cape Wind's proposed location at Horseshoe Shoal - questioning whether it is appropriate to sacrifice a national treasure and hand a public resource to a private developer.
"I have no doubt that everyone in this room wants wind to succeed," said Vineyard Conservation Society executive director Brendan O'Neill. "But we strongly disagree with the position that in the current vacuum caused by the absence of a coherent energy policy . . . it's somehow okay or appropriate for entrepreneurs to operate indiscriminately."
The hearing was moderated by Army Corps chief of public affairs Larry Rosenberg, and speakers were held to a three-minute time limit with the aid of a traffic light on stage. But the rigid structure did not dampen the outpouring of passionate remarks and applause.
Cong. William Delahunt opened the public testimony and set the tone for the evening with an animated speech against the Cape Wind project.
"Nantucket Sound is not our backyard, it is our front yard," Mr. Delahunt declared. "It is not just a view for those living and working on the water, it is an economic engine. It is the heart and soul of our region."
Mr. Delahunt spoke at length about the need for a coherent federal policy with ocean regulations before wind farms are permitted - on Horseshoe Shoal, or anywhere else.
"Let's not lose sight of the fact that this is a public resource, that the waters and the seabed are owned by the American people," he said.
State Secretary of Environmental Affairs Ellen Herzfelder, acting as a spokesman for Gov. Mitt Romney, agreed. "Ocean real estate is up for grabs in a way our forefathers could never have imagined," she said.
At the public hearing in Yarmouth one day later Governor Romney called on the Army Corps to halt its review until a suitable national ocean management policy is in place.
Cape and Islands state Sen. Robert O'Leary also spoke against the project, claiming that it violates the state's prior legislative attempts to protect Nantucket Sound.
After the politicians had their turn, it was a night for the workaday Islander to weigh in. A half-dozen local fishermen and ship captains who spoke - including Charles Monteiro of the Steamship Authority - opposed the project, citing risks to safety, navigation and fish populations.
"I believe everybody in this room wants to move forward to tomorrow's energy - and wind is a great way to do this - but if another site could be found that has less impact on me directly, that would be great," said Tom Turner, a commercial fisherman from Edgartown.
Beyond the fishermen, when Vineyard residents stood to approach the microphone, it was not always clear which side they would take. The visual impact posed by the 130 turbines has long been an issue for opponents of the project, but wind farm supporters raised the subject more often on Monday night.
"I would welcome the possibility of a wind farm in my front yard," said Andrew Palmer, a seasonal resident of Chilmark. "The visible symbol of clean energy in the turning blades would comfort me."
Vineyard Haven resident John Packer offered another reason for the project.
"I'm not raising my two sons to fight in an oil war . . . because we don't have the courage to build a windmill," Mr. Packer said. Other speakers cited future wars as a possible result if renewable energy projects do not move forward.
In an equally emotional statement, however, Edgartown resident Christine Doyle-Burke offered her own interpretation of the visual impact.
"When I looked at the pictures [of what the wind farm might look like], I was brought nearly to tears. It's not benign, and forgive me if I'm selfish for feeling that way," Mrs. Doyle-Burke said, choking up slightly.
Testimony went on for more than three hours.
The last chance to submit oral comment to the Army Corps will be at the final public hearing on Thursday, Dec. 16, at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in Cambridge. The Corps will accept written comment through Feb. 24.
On Monday night, as people filed out of the auditorium when the hearing was over, Cape Wind president James Gordon and Susan Nickerson - executive director of the Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound, Cape Wind's chief opponent - stood side by side and compared notes on the evening. Both said they found it instructive that Vineyard residents were so evenly divided.
"I thought there were some eloquent statements on both sides, and was gratified at the diversity of the support," Mr. Gordon said. Picking up on a comment made earlier in the evening, he concluded: "Like [Martha's Vineyard Regional High School freshman Rachel Shubert] said, beauty is in the eye of the beholder."