Tom Garretson always liked people.
But for the first 35 years of his life, he didn’t see many of them.
“On the farm you hardly see anyone at all,” said the tall, lanky Cherry Valley town supervisor, “except your family.”
In 2006, it was quite the opposite, as he presided at packed meeting after packed meeting and debate raged over Reunion Power’s 24-turbine wind farm proposed for East Hill.
Given that he liked people, Garretson began the year – his first as supervisor, succeeding 38-year veterans Bob Loucks Jr., his father-in-law – wanting to make everybody happy.
Over the course of the year he discovered “at the end of the day, you might not make anybody happy.”
Having reached that conclusion, he realized there was no alternative to listening, thinking, reflecting, trying to keep an open mind but, in the end, coming to his own conclusion.
For safely ferrying his divided rural community from one threatened by runaway industrial wind-turbine development to one that is planning and in control of its future, and by doing so with patience, courtesy and growing wisdom, Tom Garretson was selected as The Freeman’s Journal “Citizen of 2006,” which will now be an annual designation.
Two letters to the editor bookend the development of Garretson’s thinking during the year.
In April, he declared his support for alternative energy, argued Cherry Valley should play a role in addressing a national crisis, and concluded, “As for the advocacy groups, you should either get in line with the rest of the country or you should get out of the way, because this country has a problem and we need to fix it.”
He still supports the concept of wind power, but a very different concept.
“We could create a project that would generate the amount of energy that this town uses, while generating the amount of revenue that this town needs,” he wrote in a letter published in November. “It would be our project, with laws developed by our town, with our town’s vision in mind. As a town and as a community, we could start to be proactive with our ideas instead of being reactive to someone else’s.”
Summer of Discontent
That first letter, it turns out, signalled the beginning of Garretson’s summer of discontent,
as he and his wife Amy sought to juggle his municipal duties with planning for oldest daughter Celia’s wedding. In the midst of it all, the Garretsons were given a surprise 25th anniversary party.
In June, Garretson and other officials and townspeople took a bus trip sponsored by Reunion to the Town of Fenner, Madison County, where 20 wind turbines had been built in 2001.
The tour had the opposite effect to what Reunion hoped. Garretson found Fenner flat, undistinguished, consisting of failing dairy farms, with none of Cherry Valley’s dramatic hills and valleys, long views, varied population and rich history.
Is what’s right for Fenner right for Cherry Valley? the supervisor began to ask himself.
At the July 13 town board meeting, council chambers in the town barn were packed to overflowing and pro-turbine demonstrators – many of whom Garretson had known for years – were carrying placards and chanting outside. The heat was stifling.
“Tom Garretson kept his cool through the whole thing,” said Bren Miosek, The Freeman’s Journal managing editor, who covered the meeting.
But Garretson, who had served on town board for eight years before succeeding Loucks, wasn’t sure how much he could stand.
“Until you actually are in the job,” Amy said, “you don’t know what it entails – the responsibility, the time, the effort.”
As Garretson shifted from someone who was considered supportive of a “Reunion-size project” to trying to find another way, he took criticism from all sides.
“You can’t take it personally,” he said.
Amy added, “but you do take it personally at first.”
Howls of Protest
On the last evening in July, the town trucks were removed and folding chairs set up to accommodate more than 200 people in the bays; another 50 stood outside. With Garretson enforcing a three-minute-per-comment rule, almost 100 citizens spoke, three-quarters in favor of a 12-month moratorium that would delay all major commercial development, enough time to allow the town Planning Board to complete and adopt a Comprehensive Master Plan.
One of several emotional highpoints of the evening came when Garretson’s middle daughter,
Bethany, testified against the moratorium, saying “we can’t live in the past.”
At the evening’s end, to howls from the crowd, Garretson’s motion to adopt the moratorium failed for lack of a second from either of the two other councilmen, Fabian Bressett III and Jim Johnson.
It was a rookie mistake, Garretson acknowledged later. He vowed never to call a vote again until he was sure of the outcome, and conclusion that would serve him well through the rest of the year, through a three-month moratorium and 45-day extension as he shepherded the toughest wind ordinance in New York State into law. It prohibits turbines within 2,000 feet of a dwelling, and within 1,200 feet of a property line, and Reunion Vice President David Little said it makes it impossible for his company’s plans to go forward.
Town Takes Control
“The day after the ordinance passed,” Garretson said, “was the first day the town was acting in control of its destiny. Before, it was going to be the developers.”
“You couldn’t help but notice Tom’s change of opinion,” said Walter Buist, a town Planning Board member who helped draft the ordinance. “Since, he’s been consistent and courageous in his position that we should be in control of the process. He was willing to take the political risk.”
The evening of the vote was also Bressett’s last board meeting after 33 years. He, Johnson and Garretson “selected” – a sitting town board member can’t vote on his successor – Mark Cornwell, who was born the year Bressett joined the town board, to replace him. A fisheries and wildlife instructor at SUNY Cobleskill, he has spoken out against Reunion at various points.
Ten years ago, or 20, certainly 30, who would have predicted Tom Garretson’s “year of transformation”?
He was born in Newton, N.J., where his father Edward – everyone knows him as “Bud” – farmed, but was looking for a place of his own which would have two features: A decent barn and a nice house “for mom,” the son remembered.
It took years of scouring Pennsylvania, upstate New York and a handful of other states, but Bud Garretson finally discovered the place on Mill Road, and moved his family – mom Beverly, and sons Bill, Jim, Tom and David – to Cherry Valley. Tom was 11 at the time.
Asked to recall an anecdote about Tom, his mother diplomatically said, “they were all good boys” and left it at that.
Dad put his sons to work as soon as they were able. “He couldn’t really afford to pay us a lot,” recalled Tom. “But if we needed a snowmobile in the winter or a motorcyle in the summer, one would be there.”
Cherry Valley High School was about the same size at Newton’s, so he soon felt at home. On graduating in 1977, he went into the family farm, joining his dad and older brother Jim, and the farm expanded to 350 Holsteins, including 160 milkers.
A dozen years of toil followed, from 3:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., seven days a week. “We basically lived in the barn,” said brother Jim, who focused on the dairying while his brother focused on the crops, maintained the machinery and kept the books.
Asked to describe his brother in one word, Jim said “perfectionist. The shop was basically his doing. Everything was in its place.”
Across a Crowded Room
One evening in 1979, during the Tryon’s heyday as a community gathering place for all ages, he ran into a young woman who had been a year behind him in school, Amy Loucks, who was studying nursing at Herkimer Community College.
They chatted and he asked her out, “thinking that I’d be shut down,” he said during an interview in the dining room of the family’s old Victorian farmhouse, looking south where the terrain rises up to Route 20, with Amy, Bethany and Mallory, 12, chiming in from time to time. That first date was a low-key outing. He took her up to Herkimer to visit her college roommate.
Tom and Amy rib each other about that meeting, but then he gets serious.
“We knew,” he said. “We knew.”
And Amy then adds, “It was love at first sight.”
The two married in 1981. Celia was born three years later and when Bethany came along two years after that, the young couple reached a decision.
“I knew I wasn’t going to have enough time for the girls,” he said. So the farm went up for sale, although a transaction wasn’t completed until the early “˜90s.
Farming was all he knew, so the change was scary, but it worked out.
While Tom joined Bassett Healthcare, where he served in various roles before joining The Farmers’ Museum accounting department in 2005. This gave the Garretsons a life. Amy went back to college for her Bachelor of Science; she is now school nurse at Cherry Valley-Springfield Central School. The two coached girls soccer together, she as head coach, he as assistant. And Tom’s father-in-law invited him to join the town board.
Into Town Politics
Bob Loucks had a reputation for running a tight ship, and things were on a pretty even keel.
“The first few years,” said Garretson, “I don’t remember any issues at all. You introduced the bills and passed them. Once in a while, you had to buy a truck.”
Things began to change after Global Wind Energy discovered windy Cape Wyckoff, across County Highway 31 from CV-S Central. Ten people began to show up at meetings; then 15.
When that increased to 40-50 after Reunion took over Global Wind’s claim (it later shifted its sights to East Hill, on the town’s north end), “you knew something was going on.”
Regardless of the stresses and strains, Garretson is the recipient of much good will, even among those who may disagree with him.
Bob Loucks, while skirting questions about what he would have done differently, focuses on his son-in-law’s personal attributes as “a very good father, a very good, religious man” who’s “raised three wonderful girls.”
The Garretsons had breakfast with the Loucks side of the family Christmas Day, then hosted the other Garretsons in the afternoon.
There are just some things they’ve agreed not to talk about.
Into the Future
Religion played a more important role than ever for him this year, said Garretson, who is Episcopalian.
“You can’t do it alone,” he said. “There are days when you’re basically alone.”
During what Amy calls “the perfect storm” of July, “we really didn’t think I’d be running next year.”
But bringing this year’s trials to a conclusion was “a challenge. I always like challenges.”
For now, Garretson is hoping to further explore the idea of harnessing wind power on a small scale for the benefit of the community. Down the road, who knows? He didn’t rule out further political ambitions.
By Jim Kevlin
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