CLINTON, N.Y. – Tammie Trombley had never heard of wind turbines before Noble Environmental Power wanted to put them on her family’s 1,205-acre farm.
Standing outside her home one June afternoon, taking a break from unloading tractors full of hay bales, Trombley, 37, pointed to where Noble would erect five massive 1.5-megawatt generators. The company is assembling 67 towers in Trombley’s town of Clinton and another 54 towers in neighboring Ellenburg.
By and large, both upstate New York communities seem to be welcoming Noble.
Clinton and Ellenburg are cash-strapped communities dependent on dairy farming and jobs in towns miles away. Wind turbines mean subsidy money in the town coffers, and opportunities.
“It’s going to help the school out. It’s helping everybody out with their taxes,” said Trombley. “It’s helped a lot of people as far as work.”
But a handful of residents here remain skeptical. Critics say benefits to the town come at too great a cost. Opponents had been vocal, raising concerns over safety, health and aesthetics.
Supporters of wind power had their way, though, and the com-their way, though, and the company broke ground on the project June 23.
Several towns in western Rutland County may soon have to make the same choices that Trombley and her neighbors faced. Noble is eyeing the ridgeline around Grandpa’s Knob as a site for another wind farm, and already has begun preliminary tests and talks with landowners in Castleton, Hubbardton and West Rutland. The company has set up an office in the Chittenden Building in Rutland.
Trombley acknowledged the wind turbines generated some debate; and there was a steep learning curve among some residents. But Noble worked with the communities, and even individual landowners, to allay concerns. It did not persuade everyone.
For Trombley, it comes down to one thing: making farming a little more practical.
“Put aside everything else, if you have the land and it makes your life easier,” she said. “My husband’s worked hard all his life, and I look forward to the day he can slow down a little. I’d love to be able to cut back a little bit and take it easy.”
The northwestern corner of Clinton County could be mistaken for Vermont. There’s the same greenery and dirt roads, the same style dairy farms. Tractors regularly slow traffic on the roadways.
Ellenburg was chartered in 1830 and named for the daughter of one of its chief proprietors; Clinton broke off in 1845. The center of Clinton, Churubusco, took its name from a battle during the Mexican War in which some residents served. Ellenburg’s population is about 1,800; Clinton’s is 730.
The area was settled primarily by Canadians of Irish and French descent, according to Clinton town historian Diane Lagree.
“Dairy farming was a biggy in town,” Lagree said. “Almost any place was a dairy farm. Now we probably have about eight dairy farms left in Clinton.”
Most of the families in town have been there at least two or three generations, Lagree said, and most of the people travel to either Plattsburgh or Malone for work – many are correctional officers at a nearby prison. Georgia Pacific and the pharmaceutical company Wyeth Ayrest are other major employers in nearby towns.
“At one time, the town had a population of about 2,000 because we had a big sawmill,” Lagree said. “Lumber was sawed there and sent out on the train.”
And, notably, the town may have missed out on its big chance at making history.
“We were going to have a rock festival at one time,” she said. “You know Woodstock? One like it. It was going to be called the Churubusco Live-In.”
She brought out a poster advertising the concert, planned for May 1970. Musical acts listed included B.B. King, Sly and the Family Stone, Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young, Three Dog Night, Steppenwolf, The Allman Brothers, Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley and Little Richard.
The concert was a major controversy, Lagree said, reminiscent of the present-day argument over wind towers. Many in the community soured on the concert when it was revealed that the promoter had started selling tickets without booking any bands. The discussion ended, according to Lagree, with the town passing an ordinance forbidding large gatherings, effectively killing the show.
“Over the last 10 to 15 years it’s been deteriorating,” said town councilman Lawrence Lagree – Diane’s husband – of the local economy. “We were always hoping for a correctional facility – prison systems are good for an area – but it never happened. People here have to travel to get to work.”
Signs of economic depression abound in this region, from abandoned farms to run-down houses to empty businesses. But the area has a significant surplus of one resource: Wind. Stiff breezes are the norm, almost a constant.
“If you look at a (topographical) map, it’s elevated but it’s nice and flat,” said Noble spokeswoman Allison Finley. “It’s also flat right before the wind goes into the Adirondacks, which creates higher winds.”
Standing next to a contraption roughly the size and shape of a large Winnebago, Finley explained the gigantic assembly puzzle.
“These are nacelles,” she said. “This is what goes at the top of a wind tower. When people talk about generators, this is it.”
The nacelle would soon be part of an assembly 385 feet tall from the base to the tip of the blade. The blades, made of Fiberglas and balsa wood, are 127 feet long and designed to spin at 12 to 15 revolutions per minute.
Nacelles, blades and towers filled Noble’s staging area. The assembly of the various turbine parts, brought in from far-off places including California, North Carolina, Germany and Brazil, was on hold until foundations could be poured. Once that work was completed, Finley said, the towers “would be assembled like Legos.”
“They can go up in a matter of days,” she said. “We could have our first turbine up in three to four weeks. Construction should go into the early winter.”
Finley said the company is spending $361 million to erect the towers and will inject $260 million into the local economy over the next 20 years. She said each turbine will generate enough power for about 500 homes, significantly boosting New York state’s renewable energy production.
The project is supervised out of a newly built office in Clinton. It’s a crowded prefabricated building, where the hallways are lined with large flowerpots full of pinwheels and “pro-wind power” lawn signs.
The company educated the community about the project before it asked for residents’ approval.
“We’re at board meetings a year and a half, two years before we submit an application to a town,” said project engineer Josh Brown. “I’ve been here a year and a half now. … When we got to the permitting, the education level was there.”
Finley said the company referred to early involvement in communities as its “boots-on-the-ground” approach.
“We put people into the field. We open an office and we have a presence.”
Across the street from Noble’s Clinton headquarters is Dick’s Country Store and Music Oasis. Signs on the outside of the establishment boast that it offers “500 Guitars” and “1,000 Guns.”
Inside, bulletin boards hold posters for bluegrass festivals and country-western concerts, along with advertisements for baled hay. A refrigerator full of night crawlers sits near the door.
Owner Dick Decosse has a closet-sized office wedged between the country store and the gun shop. His bookshelves contain several volumes on the Rutland Railroad, which runs through Clinton.
Decosse also has an interest in wind power. He agreed to let Noble put a turbine on his land.
“There’s a definite need for alternative-energy sources,” he said. “This is a windy place, always has been. I said if they’re going to build one, this is the place to do it.”
Decosse characterized discussions of the towers as “intense” and “controversial,” but said the opposition eventually proved to be a small group.
“They came out with a lot of information that was not necessarily factual or true,” he said. “A lot of rumors circulated before the studies and that sort of stuff came out. It’s gone this way in other areas – the opposition is very vocal. People in favor of it are not as vocal.
“One guy said they burn a lot of fuel to turn those blades,” he said. “Some people just aren’t informed.”
Decosse said he heard the towers would sterilize cows and cause cancer. However, one thing did concern him: losing control of his property or becoming responsible for turbines placed there.
Should the turbines fail economically, Decosse said the easements make it clear that Noble must remove them at the company’s cost.
“Our attorney looked at the easement,” he said. “He said it leans in the landlord’s favor. … Some of the opposition said it’s going to devalue your property. I personally called a bunch of real estate agents in the areas where they have turbines already.”
None of the agents he spoke to had seen a drop in property values, Decosse said, and at least one said values had continued along a steady upward trend. He heard some prospective buyers even inquire about property with a view of the turbines.
“Some people are really impressed by them and want to see them,” he said. “Some people don’t.”
So Decosse signed on.
“In the beginning I said I wanted to find out more,” he said. “I didn’t know the company. … All in all, we looked everything over. The bottom line for me is, if you’re OK with the looks of the tower, you’re going to be good with everything.”
A drive around the area seems to support Decosse’s contention that the opposition was solidly in the minority. Lawn signs distributed by the company can be seen all over town, and people randomly approached by a reporter were lukewarm at worst.
“I’m all for it, 100 percent – not 99 percent, 100,” said Gladys Piccone. “I know how it is in Texas, they got the windmills there and I know all about them. They’re nice and it saves you money, too. I’m all for that. … There’s a few that aren’t, but the majority are for it.”
Piccone said her neighbor will host a turbine.
Ross Carter, a 77-year-old retiree in Ellenburg, was more moderate in his support.
“If they do what they claim they are going to do, I guess they are going to help out a lot,” he said. “Most people are for it and some are against it. The ones really pushing for it are the ones who are going to get these windmills and are going to get money for it. The ones that aren’t getting it are concerned they’re not getting money.”
Rita Shippee said her father gave Noble access to their land for testing before his death in December. Shippee inherited the land and was unhappy at the thought of having a wind tower above her.
“I wasn’t too happy about the whole thing,” she said. “I’d heard they flicker and make noise. Then I found out they weren’t going to build one on my land. I wouldn’t have minded in one of my other fields. I’m glad they’re doing them. I think it’s a wonderful thing. I just don’t want them in my back yard.”
Richard Dupuis, owner of Dupuis Groceries in Ellenburg, said he was not really for or against the turbines.
“If I had it the way I want it, I’d leave the town just the way it was,” he said. “If it meant we were going to save a lot in taxes. We’ve got to have something up here and it’s better than a nuclear plant.”
Opposition to Noble was out there, but hard to find.
Four anti-wind signs could be found during two days of driving around the area. One was on land with no house nearby. Another was at a house whose occupant wasn’t home.
A third location had several anti-wind power signs, including one with a picture of a turbine and a caption decrying the effect on the view. A woman in the driveway referred questions to her husband, who did not respond to a note asking him to contact a reporter.
“We’re all for natural wind, just not so many within a five-mile radius,” said Jessica Carter, who, with Mark Finnell, was one of two local opponents to the project who agreed to an interview.
Finnell said he expects there will be hidden costs, and he said he doubts some of the environmentalist rhetoric from the pro-wind side.
“It’s more about money than people want to admit,” he said. “You get a guy driving a big pickup saying ‘support wind energy’ – it’s not an environmental issue. This is a poor community. You throw a couple hundred dollars at someone, they’re going to jump right on it.
“They wouldn’t do this in Long Island; they have as much wind as we do,” he said.
Without a turbine in place, Clinton councilman Lagree said Noble already has paid Clinton $345,000 in hosting fees. The annual municipal budget is about $125,000.
Standing in the shade of his front porch in Churubusco, Lagree took a break from mowing his lawn to discuss the wind issue. His neighborhood is one of the few concentrations of houses in town, and one of the few relatively upscale-looking areas. A single downtown block includes a church, the post office and the town offices.
Not many people work in the Churubusco and Clinton town offices. A number of the employees have full-time jobs elsewhere and the town clerks often work from their homes.
The money from Noble will make a huge difference for Clinton.
“We’re almost positive we can do away with the town tax,” Lagree said. “We’ll still have the school tax and county tax.”
Lagree said inflationary increases are built into the payments. The town is now looking at various improvements it has not had a chance to make.
“Basically, right now we’re looking at the highway department, getting new equipment for the town,” he said. “This coming year we’re thinking about a recreation area for the kids – some place for swimming, maybe a fitness room where the whole family can work out.”
Lagree said there is talk of building a new town hall.
“There’s certainly things the town can use,” he said. “We’re hoping for input from people.”
In Ellenburg, with a larger population and fewer planned towers, the payments still are significant.
Town Supervisor James McNeil said hosting payments were $210,000 last year. Ellenburg’s town budget is about $800,000.
“We applied it all to the town – 50 percent to the general fund and 50 percent to the highway fund,” McNeil said.
Ellenburg residents said they had not noticed a difference in their tax rates, but properties in town were recently reappraised.
Taxes are on the way down in Clinton. Pulling out his most recent tax bill to check the numbers, grocer-gun shop owner Decosse said the land tax, which includes municipal and country taxes, went from about $1.40 per $100 of assessed property value to about $.99 per $100.
When the turbines are in place, company money will also go to the school fund. The school tax is roughly $1.90 per $100.
“This is with no turbines up yet,” Decosse said. “Everyone in this town, whether they were for the turbines or against the turbines, saw a third off of their land tax.”
Piccone, the woman who declared her support for the project, said her taxes have dropped almost $300. “I’m happy with that, too,” she said. “I’ve got a big property, here.”
Arguments against wind power blow strong around the nation.
Noble’s employees are quick to rattle off the more farfetched theories. Engineer Brown offered up rather incredible theories that the turbines cause mad cow disease and that they will pull the planet out of its orbit.
None of the outrageous and easily debunked anti-wind arguments mentioned by Noble’s employees are representative of what can be found on anti-wind Web sites and pamphlets.
Three issues come up again and again. One is noise. Another is “shadow flicker,” an effect created when the rotating blades pass in front of the sun, said to be disorienting and irritating. A third concern is ice build-up being thrown off on the blades in cold weather.
“Those are valid concerns,” Brown said when asked about them. “They are products of older-style wind power.”
Brown said modern wind towers are not as noisy, and they are placed in such a way – a minimum of 1,000 feet from any home – that shadow flicker and ice throw should not be a danger to residents.
A local noise ordinance requires sound from the towers be no louder than 50 decibels.
“The wind you hear right now is louder than 50 decibels,” Brown said.
Wanting to judge for himself, Lagree said he went to the Tug Hill area of New York, where there are 195 wind towers.
“I went out three or four times to see them,” he said. “It’s no worse than looking at power poles or telephone towers. Out there they got a beautiful view. You see for miles and you see the wind turbines. To me, they blend in nice.”
As for noise, Lagree said he was able to stand under the turbines and have a conversation.
“You could hear a swish, but it’s nothing you can’t live with,” he said.
Lagree said there also was talk among opponents about towers killing birds or bats, but he dismissed it. “The Humane Society (and the Department of Conservation) never came out with anything on that,” he said.
Decosse said the company checked into many of the concerns. Then there were the complaints about ruined views.
Lagree said he thought there were plenty of other places for people to show that sort of concern.
“In Churubusco, there’s been a lot of clear-cutting,” he said. “That’s really hurting the environment. It used to be all nice trees. People are selling them for wood chips. I know it grows back, but it takes so many years. … We said, ‘come to board meetings, bring some good facts.’ It was the same stuff, meeting after meeting.”
But there were other influences at play. Lagree said about half the people speaking against the project were outsiders.
“People from other towns were coming to our hearings,” he said. “It’s none of their business, but they had their input – nothing I could do about that. There was some opposition, but the majority was for it. Being on the town board, that’s what you go for, a majority of the people. … We looked really hard at the project.”
Part of that looking involved bringing in a lawyer from a large firm in Buffalo to draw up the ordinance that would govern placement of the towers. Clinton also hired an engineer from an Ontario firm to look over Noble’s shoulder.
“We wanted somebody to follow the project and make sure it was going right,” Lagree said. “It wasn’t too far into the project that she shut them down for a while.”
Lagree said contractors did not have the proper signs up during road work and portions of the road were done incorrectly.
“She made them re-dig up the road, make sure everything was to the right level,” he said. “They complied. … I think Noble was pretty well up-front. So far, it’s been going good.”
To other communities facing the wind turbine debate, Lagree said it is the big picture that needs to be remembered.
“Definitely, we have to do something for global warming,” he said. “Windmills are not going to take care of it all, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
By Gordon Dritschilo
15 July 2007
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