It’s occurred in different corners of New York state, and now the question’s been raised in the Herkimer County town of Litchfield. Is it proper for gigantic wind turbines to be approved by towns whose own officials might stand to gain financially from the projects?
If we are to uphold the principles of good government, then the answer must be “no.” But the scope of these projects and their potential impact on communities with only a few thousand residents means that final approval should be made not at the town level but at the county or even state level.
The state Attorney General’s Office this past week began investigating circumstances surrounding plans for a wind farm in Cape Vincent, a community located at the point where Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence River. A number of officials or their relatives have agreements to lease land to the company building the turbines, according to the Post-Standard of Syracuse. How, then, could Cape Vincent’s leaders be impartial when it comes time to approve the project?
The answer is: They can’t be. And the same would be true in any community where leaders might have a vested interest in seeing such a project approved.
Life in much of rural New York state changes very slowly. And if change does occur, it’s likely to involve greater struggles on the part of farmers to stay in business. So when a company comes to town planning to spend possibly millions on an alternative energy project, and when landowners start getting letters in the mail talking about lease agreements, that’s going to shake up things.
That’s certainly been the case in Litchfield, where some residents are up in arms because of a planned wind farm on Herkimer County’s western border, more or less facing the Sauquoit area of Oneida County. Litchfield is a place so stable that the roads are named after many of the families involved in this debate, on one side or the other. The O-D reported Sunday that last autumn, the town codes officer stood to benefit to the tune of $20,000 because of potential leasing of his land. And the town supervisor is employed by a paving company that owns land in the vicinity of where the wind turbines might go.
Officials say now that the codes officer’s land won’t be part of the project, and neither might the paving company’s.
Nonetheless, the fact that NorthWind and Power has laid out specifications for a law governing the height of wind turbines in Litchfield, and that town officials appear prepared to go along with those specifications, demonstrates why even the allegation of conflicts can poison the process. In such a close-knit community, who could tell if, in the end, a town official or his or her relative benefits directly or indirectly?
That’s why adding another layer of approval for wind turbine projects – at the county or state level – would be wise. State legislators must recognize that it’s in no one’s best interests if rural New York residents feel railroaded by a process that might be tainted, which is why they should work on passing such a law. From the far remove of the county seat or Albany, officials can weigh the pros and cons of a project and presumably beyond reproach. In addition, these are complex projects, and a rural town is hardly likely to have the expertise to gauge the environmental, economic and social impacts of a giant wind farm. A county or state would.
In an era when cultivating alternative energy sources is a priority, wind turbines certainly are going to grow in number in coming years. But it’s vital that the process be on the up and up.