LITCHFIELD – On a recent Tuesday night, more than 60 people flocked to a Litchfield Town Board meeting to talk about a proposed wind farm project.
Everywhere you turned, an argument was brewing.
A wind company official was booed when he attempted to speak. One woman stormed out of the meeting after a family member asked her why she supports the project.
And multiple residents called for the resignation of town Supervisor Wayne Casler, saying he stands to benefit as an employee of nearby Barrett Paving Materials that could be granted contracts if the project is approved.
“We’re a small town, a quiet town,” Councilman Jim Entwistle said. “Normally, there aren’t a lot of big issues like this to divide people. Now, it’s all about money and greed.”
The tensions in Litchfield resemble those seen in other communities now home to wind projects, which can bring the promise of lucrative lease options for a few landowners and leave others harboring resentments.
An O-D review of the Litchfield project discussed by Albany-based NorthWind and Power found:
* The wind company has suggested the town adopt regulations that would benefit its own project. In a letter to the town, NorthWind discussed the types of turbines that it could not use if a suggested 450-foot height restriction is imposed and asked the town not limit turbine height.
* Town Codes Officer Scott Davies once stood to earn as much as $20,000 for leasing his land to NorthWind, according to a Nov. 10, 2009 letter NorthWind sent to the town. Company officials and Davies’ say the land is no longer under consideration, and any discussions about a possible agreement did not pose a conflict.
* Landowners said in some cases, the hostilities have amounted to threatening phone calls and slashed tires on vehicles. They say much of the resentment is rooted in jealousy from neighbors who would no longer have access to the hundreds of acres of private land they’ve used for hunting and horseback riding without issue for years.
“Close friends and relatives of mine completely avoid us or don’t even speak to us anymore because of my views on this,” said Davies, who is in favor of the project. “It used to be you don’t talk about politics and religion. Now, it’s windmills, politics and religion.”
A farming community
Albany-based NorthWind and Power first showed up in Litchfield about a year ago, eyeing the Dry Hill area because some wind maps indicated it could be a prime spot for a wind farm housing eight to 12 turbines.
Litchfield is a sprawling rural community of 1,500 situated on the southwestern edge of Herkimer County. It’s a town where some farming families have lived for so long that the roads are named after them.
Landowners first heard of the project last summer when they received a letter in the mail from NorthWind. Soon, about a dozen gathered to meet with wind company officials for pizza and wings at the Lanterns, a restaurant owned by Jake Rasbach, a sixth-generation farmer who also owns hundreds of acres of land on Dry Hill.
Patrick Doyle, the president and founder of NorthWind who met with the landowners at the Lanterns, is an Irish-born engineer and businessman. The son of beef cattle farmers in southeastern Ireland, Doyle said he relates to the landowners struggling to make ends meet.
“It’s pretty hard to make the economics work on a farm right now,” Doyle said during a recent ride through Dry Hill, a hilly and rocky landscape he likens to the terrain in Ireland. “Open farmland is well suited to wind energy. We reach up and grab it, and we can use it the day after and the day after that.”
‘Come to your own conclusions’
Little is known about the specifics of the project.
Doyle said decisions about turbine locations can’t be made because the town does not have a law in place to regulate wind farms. Those decisions will come after the town makes a law, he said.
Still, in a Jan. 20, 2010, letter to the town obtained by the O-D, Doyle lays out the consequences of imposing a 450-foot height limit recently suggested in a proposed wind farm law. The letter lists several turbines that could not be considered for the project if the proposed height limit was adopted.
“We respectfully suggest that the town consider not limiting turbine height in the wind law and deferring a decision on the acceptable turbine height in the town until a specific project is received,” the letter reads. “If the town does believe there is a need to set a limit, we suggest the town consider 500 feet so as not to eliminate many potentially promising turbines, manufacturers or tower heights.”
By the next Town Board meeting, some board members discussed 500-foot height limits, meeting minutes show.
“On every critical point, it’s become what’s best for the developer, and not what’s best for the town,” said Jonathan Knauth, a Litchfield resident who opposes the project.
“You can come to your own conclusions,” Doyle said when asked if it was fair to suggest regulations for the law. “I thought it was important to share that information with the town. Otherwise, we have people saying we’re not sharing information about what we want to do.”
Susan Lerner, executive director of Common Cause New York, said NorthWind is entitled to voice its opinions, but the public should be made aware of what those opinions are.
“Real conflicts show up when companies hire insiders and lobbyists to try to influence decisions behind closed doors,” Lerner said.
Opponents of the project have questioned the efficiency of wind energy and pointed to various health concerns. Some also have criticized town officials, who could potentially benefit from the project.
Davies, the town codes officer who earns about $4,400 a year, once stood to gain thousands from the project, but was told in late November 2009 his land would not be used. Davies said the lease option was never a conflict and noted he never accepted any freebies from NorthWind.
Also in questions is the role played in the process by Casler, the town supervisor. He is employed by Barrett Paving Materials, which owns more than 100 acres of land on the southern end of Dry Hill.
Doyle said the paving company’s land has never been considered for the project. He did, however, acknowledge that the company could be chosen to supply materials for the project if it’s approved.
Casler could not be reached last week.
The issue, however, was addressed in a letter written by Daniel Spitzer, a Buffalo-based attorney the town hired to deal with wind issues. In May, Spitzer wrote a letter in response to attorney Peter Cresci, who asked about the possibility of a conflict of interest.
Spitzer’s letter states Casler does not have any ownership in Barrett Paving, and his salary is not tied to its operations.
Still, one ethics expert called the relationship problematic.
“Rather than pretending there’s no conflict, it’s something that should be brought out to public discussion so as to avoid the accusation that he’s acting in his own self interest,” Lerner said. “He might not necessary benefit, but the potential is there.”
In light of allegations that various wind companies have sought improper influence over town officials in other communities, the state Attorney General’s Office issued a code of ethics – signed by NorthWind – that requires companies to disclose names of officials and relatives who have a financial stake proposed developments.
NorthWind, however, is not required to follow the code in the Litchfield project because its small size defines it a community energy project exempt from those regulations, said Lee Park, a spokesman for the state Attorney General’s Office.
‘A right to the view of my land’
As the town continues to deliberate over what regulations should control the massive structures, neither side appears ready to make any concessions.
Board members have not yet decided how far turbines should be set back from homes and what permitting processes will be necessary. The town has a moratorium on wind farms that will expire in March 2011.
Dry Hill landowner Jake Rasbach said it should be up to the property owners to decide if they want turbines on their land.
“My family has been here for 100 years, and people who’ve just moved in are trying to say they’ve got a right to the view of my land,” Rasbach said. “It just makes me mad.”
Mike Massoud, a vocal opponent of the project, said wind energy isn’t reliable, and projects will have consequences that all residents will have to deal with.
“The whole town is going to be affected in a meaningful way – probably for the rest of our lives,” Massoud said.
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