None of the 150 people who packed the bleachers in the old high school gym on the evening of Thursday, Dec. 14, knew for sure.
Would the Cherry Valley town board adopt a “gold standard” wind-power ordinance that would halt Reunion Power’s 24-turbine East Hill project in its tracks?
Or would the three men reject the ordinance, rebuff their own planning board, which they had directed to draft it, and open the way for Reunion Power, based in Manchester, Vt., but recently allied with the multi-national Edison Mission Group, to bulldoze the town’s minimalist site-plan review process and get the $50 million effort under way.
No one, that is, except Fabian Bressett III, and retiring 33-year town board veteran who that night would be casting his final vote before departing for Myrtle Beach, and Jim Johnson, a freshman elected for the first time in November 2005. Supervisor Tom Garretson, the third vote, had made it clear he supported enacting the toughest turbine regulations in New York State, and said later he anticipated the other two would go along.
But no one was sure.
“Sincerely, I did not know how he was going to vote,” Bressett’s wife, Carol, said later in an interview at their Church Street home. “We talked about it 110 times, but I didn’t know how he was going to vote when he went up there.”
Over her husband’s decades in public life, Carol had attended public hearings and other town events, but never an actual town board meeting.
“You don’t have to be there,” he told her on that culminating night.
In the old gym, you could feel the tension – and see it in the faces of the people around you.
The Reunion Power trio – Managing Partner Steve Eisenberg, Vice President David Little and Marion Trieste, whose Trieste & Associates, a public relations firm in Saratoga Springs – exuded a degree of confidence. Did they know something no one else did?
Tom Fucillo, the Syracuse lawyer and the town’s special counsel in this matter, spent an hour reading the SEQR – State Environmental Quality Review – application on the proposed town law, punctuating each provision with a “not applicable.”
Then, stone-faced, Bressett made the motion to approve the ordinance.
Town Clerk Mary Beth Flint called the roll.
You could hear a collective intake of breath.
The crowd leaped to its feet as one, wildly applauding.
Tense expressions were replaced with elation.
Not so in the corner of the Reunion Power trio, who appeared deflated and headed for the door.
“Did you anticipate this outcome?”
Trieste was asked.
“No,” she said, her head down as she left the hall.
Andy Minnig, leader of the anti-turbine Advocates for Cherry Valley, called the vote “very significant,” and said a few days later that he’s been getting calls from anti-turbine groups around the state, from Prattsburgh, from Delaware County and elsewhere, asking for a copy of Cherry Valley’s silver bullet.
His co-chairman, Lynn Marsh, remains cautious: “We’re not out of the woods yet. But as far as industrial wind power plopping down anywhere in Cherry Valley, it’s just not going to happen.”
In a later interview, Little said Reunion and Edison Mission officials have had several conversations on what to do next, but he wouldn’t comment whether a legal challenge might be in the offing.
He did say, “The ordinance, as approved, would kill the project.”
Bressett explained later: “The setbacks were too much. That’s why I voted how I did.”
The law prohibits a wind turbine within 2,000 feet – more than a third of a mile – from the nearest house, and 1,500 feet from the nearest property line. The setbacks were designed to meet community concerns about noise, “shadow flicker,” blight, health issues and pollution.
Added Carol, “When he has his mind made up, he has his mind made up.”
The Bressetts said they plan to remain in Cherry Valley to enjoy Christmas with family, then head down to Myrtle Beach after the first of the year. But they’ll be back in the spring.
Johnson said he voted for the ordinance, not because he opposes the Reunion plan, but because the town board directed its planning board to come up with an ordinance, using the town’s consulting engineer and outside law firm – “both of them were endorsed by Reunion” – to come up with the draft.
“At that point,” Johnson said, “I felt it would take considerable public opinion opposed to it for me to vote to turn it down.”
On the contrary, he said: The bulk of opinions the public voiced at numerous meetings and public hearings ran against the wind-turbine project.
If there was a silent majority, as the developers claimed, Johnson never saw it, he said.
Supervisor Garretson began 2006 telling turbine foes in a letter to the editor that, if they didn’t like how Cherry Valley was evolving, they could move back to where they came from. By the recent vote, Advocates for Cherry Valley perceived him as their champion.
After the vote, he told the crowd, paradoxically, some thought: “I want it known that this board very much supports a wind-energy project and we will do anything we can do to get one in this town.”
In an interview, Garretson acknowledged he began the year trying to satisfy everyone. His father-in-law, predecessor and mentor, former 38-year Supervisor Bob Loucks, strongly favored Reunion’s plans, as did Loucks’ daughter and Garretson’s wife, Amy. One of Tom’s three daughters, Bethany, a senior at SUNY Cobleskill, spoke in favor of wind power at a key public hearing on July 31.
“At the end of the day,” Garretson said, “as much as you want to keep the whole town happy, you’ve just got to decide what’s the best thing and go with that and know some people aren’t going to be happy.”
As far as family gatherings go, he said, everyone has just decided there are some topics better not discussed.
While the outcome was unclear, the body language at the head table, set parallel to the bleachers about 10 feet away, indicated Garretson was the key player. To the left, Bressett and Johnson leaned toward the supervisor, and crossed their legs in his direction; so did Town Clerk Flint and Highway Superintendent Ed VanDerwerker, sitting to the right.
Still, despite his signature giant-size gavel, Garretson said, “I don’t try to persuade anybody. Those guys” – Bressett and Johnson – “had to believe they were doing the right thing.”
Nonetheless, “I anticipated both voting for it.”
As for future wind plans, Garretson has expressed an interest in mini-turbines, perhaps two, that would be unobtrusive compared to the 400-foot behemoths Reunion had planned, one to supply power to the town, the other to allow the town to sell power back into the grid, generating revenues.
Harkening back to his early career as a dairy farmer, he said it taught him not to waste anything and Cherry Valley’s winds, untapped, are wasted.
Doing nothing would be “like Texas sitting on its oil or West Virginia sitting on its coal.”
By Jim Kevlin
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