SALEM — Mayor Kim Driscoll's proposal to erect a wind turbine on Winter Island was buffeted last night by strong winds of opposition at the first public forum on the plan.
The gales blew strongest from residents who live closest, along Winter Island Road and in nearby Salem Willows.
"Our families need to be protected," said Kevin Harvey, a neighbor, former city councilor and one of more that 80 people who packed a meeting room at the City Hall annex at 120 Washington St. "The public safety needs to be protected, and that island needs to be protected."
Emotions ran high at several points, as speakers were interrupted and voices raised.
Before walking out of the room, former Mayor Tony Salvo, a vocal opponent, nearly yelled: "We don't want it in Winter Island. We don't want it in Salem. Let it go somewhere else."
The plan to build a tall turbine — 382 feet at the tip of the spinning blade — that backers say could generate anywhere from $200,000 to more than $700,000 in annual revenue for the city certainly had its supporters.
More than a dozen residents, including several environmental activists, spoke in favor.
Pat Gozemba, a Salem Willows resident and member of Salem Alliance for the Environment, said it was "patriotic" to support the project. She called it a "brave first step to go ahead and introduce more clean energy into the grid."
State Reps. John Keenan of Salem and Lori Ehrlich of Marblehead co-signed a letter expressing "strong support."
But the majority of speakers at last night's meeting, including a number of Marblehead residents, were opposed.
While expressing support for green energy, two city councilors, who would have to vote on a bond measure to finance the $4.2 million project, came out against a wind turbine on the 32-acre waterfront recreational area.
"I'd like the city to take a look at another location," Councilor-at-large Joan Lovely said.
Driscoll and members of the Salem Renewable Energy Task Force said multiple sites were studied, and only Forest River and Winter Island were considered feasible.
Winter Island, the site of a one-year wind test, had the strongest winds of all.
"There aren't a lot of sites in Salem where you could put something like this," the mayor said.
Opponents raised concerns about noise, public safety, bird deaths and the impact on property values — points that were countered by proponents.
Cynthia O'Connor of the Willows said she visited Hull, which has two turbines.
"It was obnoxious," she said of the noise. "I think the people probably want to move out of the area."
An official from Hull, who was at the meeting, said the turbines are relatively quiet and have strong local support.
Numerous examples were raised of problems with turbines in Falmouth, Maine and other sites.
Neighbor Ed Wolfe said he was afraid the noise would be "even worse" than the Salem Harbor Station power plant.
Several opponents raised concerns about children playing near the huge tower. Some mentioned possible health hazards. Those concerns, neighbor Ed Moriarty said, are "enough to put the brakes on."
Jeffrey Barz-Snell, a member of the Renewable Energy Task Force, countered that no reputable scientific study has found any adverse health impacts.
Driscoll said she proposed building a turbine, which would sell power to the regional grid, as a way to reduce the city's carbon footprint, offset municipal energy costs of more than $1 million a year, and generate revenue for a number of projects, including improvements at long-neglected Winter Island, a former U.S. Coast Guard base.
The proposed 1.5 megawatt turbine has the potential to generate enough energy to power about 300 to 400 homes — ironically, a community about the size of Salem Willows.
A PowerPoint presentation at the start of the meeting showed a "proposed timetable," which sparked a lot of concerns and questions.
It listed a possible groundbreaking next summer and completion in the fall of 2012.
In addition, city officials said they expect to hear soon on an application for a $400,000 state grant for the project.
"I am not comfortable at the speed at which this is moving," resident Scott Hayward said.
"Is this a done deal?" Harvey yelled at the end of the meeting.
Driscoll tried to assure residents that no decision has been made and that many approvals, including from the City Council and Park and Recreation Commission, would be needed for this to move forward.
The mayor also asked residents to keep an open mind, to study the issue and not to jump to conclusions based on limited facts or misinformation.
One resident, a turbine supporter, raised another issue.
"My biggest concern," Rich Morrison said, "is that we stick our head in the ground and don't do anything."
A second public forum will be held in the fall.