Not in My Back Bay

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Massachusetts coastal residents are trying to keep windmills off their horizon

Windmills make sense. they generate clean, renewable energy without contributing to global warming or our reliance on Middle Eastern oil. They are also big and bizarre-looking and can generate resistance in heavily populated areas. So you would think there would be no easier placeto build a wind farm than fivemiles off the coast of eco-friendly Massachusetts.

But you would be wrong, judging by the reception Cape Wind Associates is getting for its plan to build 170 high-tech windmills in the glittering expanse of sea and sun that lies between Cape Cod and the islands of Martha's Vineyard and Nantucket. Although local environmental groups tend to support the $700million project — the nation's first offshore wind farm — opposition is vehement. Air-traffic controllers worry that the towers, each taller than the Statue of Liberty, would cause accidents. Boaters say the windmills would interfere with navigation on a 28-sq.mi. swath of prime sailing andfishing waters, as well as endanger marine life and migrating birds. And theinhabitants of million-dollar mansions don't want to look out their picture windows and see hundreds of lights twinkling on the horizon. "It's a monstrous industrial complex," protests Douglas Yearley, president of the newly formed Alliance to Protect Nantucket Sound. "It will be a Christmas tree out there every night."

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Yearley, a retired ceo of Phelps Dodge Corp., a giant copper-mining concern, joined the alliance when he realized that the windmills would be clearly visible from his $3.2 million waterfront home in Osterville, on Cape Cod. The group, which includes local businessmen and fishermen, filed suit last month against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to stop construction of a 197-ft. tower being built to collect wind data for the developer. Two prominent Kennedys are lending support. Senator Edward Kennedy, whose Hyannisport mansion faces the site, is pushing for a National Academy of Sciences study to determine whether laws should be enacted to govern offshore wind power, and Robert Kennedy Jr., a prominent environmentalist, is raising money to halt the project. "We wouldn't build a wind farm in the middle of Yosemite," he says. "People want to look out and see the same sight the Pilgrims saw."

Cape Wind scoffs at charges that its wind farm would create a killing field for migratory birds, insisting that the turbine blades turn too slowly to do harm. It argues that rather than disturb fish, the towers' foundations would attract marine life. "These fat cats with waterfront estates go to cocktail parties and claim they're all for renewable energy," says Cape Wind president Jim Gordon. "But when it comes to their own views, it is pure nimbyism — not in my backyard." From the shore, he says, the windmills would be mere "specks on the horizon."

The Nantucket Sound battle will not be fully joined until Cape Wind's environmental-impact statements are filed next year. Meanwhile, more than 20 other offshore wind projects have been proposed for the East Coast, from Massachusetts to Virginia. "There is no energy source today with zero impact," says Alan Nogee of the Union of Concerned Scientists. But who is going to suffer from it? With tensions rising in the Middle East and war looming in Iraq, there are worse things to lose than an unspoiled ocean view.