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Wind farm foes' suit claims zoning law change required

The town of Cape Vincent sees proposed wind turbines just like a water treatment plant or electrical substation, utilities allowed under its existing zoning laws. But an opposition group contends that dozens of 400-foot-high turbines spread over hundreds of acres aren’t utilities, and has filed a lawsuit to force the town to create new zoning controls.

A judge will decide who’s right, and that ruling may send the town back to square one in the planning process for turbine development. If the ruling is made in favor of the town, the planning process will continue with the possibility of turbines being placed in the municipality’s river and lakefront districts, on waterfront property near Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River.

Sarah F. Boss, a member of the group in whose name the suit was filed, said the decision to sue the town and St. Lawrence Wind Farm did not come easily. She said it was unfortunate that people in the community are divided over whether or not to have turbines.

“If it were to succeed, the town board would have to go back to, say, spring of last year and start looking at changing the law for the wind turbines,” she said.

The suit challenges the Zoning Board of Appeals’ decision to classify turbines as utilities. Utilities are permitted not only in the town’s agricultural and residential district, but in the river and lakefront districts as well.

Ms. Boss said members of the ethics group have been attending meetings on the proposed wind farm for a year. From the beginning, they were in support of community involvement, which they claim never fully came to pass.

Other municipalities such as Clayton, which had a moratorium on wind farm development, gave community members more time for input, she said. Ms. Boss said she thinks the opinions of people who pay high taxes for waterfront land should have been considered more in the planning process.

“Cape Vincent is two distinct communities. One community was not allowed to be in on the plans,” Ms. Boss said.

Town Supervisor Thomas K. Rienbeck defended town officials, including the members of the Zoning Board of Appeals.

“Everything they’ve done and the Planning Board has done, they’ve done with legal advice.” he said.

Mr. Rienbeck said town Attorney Mark G. Gebo advised the Zoning Board of Appeals that turbines could be considered utilities. Mr. Gebo declined to comment on conversations with the town, citing attorney-client privilege. He said he will argue the Zoning Board of Appeals decision is correct unless the town directs him not to.

“They made a decision they expect me to support, and I will support it,” he said.

The Town Council never passed an amendment to its zoning law for turbines, Mr. Rienbeck said, because of pressure from the ethics group. He said the council is not willing to move backward at this point.

The effort to establish zoning for turbines was clouded with controversy. An early sticking point was the distances proposed for setbacks from the river. Some citizens advocated setbacks of a few miles, while others, many of whom had agreements with the wind power company, did not want large setbacks.

A zoning amendment was dropped for good when the town decided preparing an environmental assessment of the proposed change would be too costly. The council was pushed toward the review at a hearing on a proposed zoning amendment that would have required setbacks of 1,000 feet plus 1.5 times the tower height from the high water mark on the lake and river.

A hearing for the case has been set for May 14 in state Supreme Court. Scott F. Chatfield is co-counsel with Ms. Drabicki on the case.

By Kelly Vadney

Publication: Watertown Daily Times (Watertown, NY)

Publication Date: 04/07/2007