Small communities across the North Country, from Burke in the east to Hammond in the west, have been deeply divided over wind power development.
The disputes pit neighbor against neighbor, and can go on for years.
That’s the case in Cape Vincent, situated just where Lake Ontario flows into the St. Lawrence River.
The picturesque town fills up in the summer with boaters, fisherman and summer residents with homes on the water. But the community’s tourism and second home economy has come into conflict with the prospects for up to 137 wind turbines being built there by BP and a Spanish company called Acciona.
That’s put enormous pressure on the town council and town planning board. In recent weeks, three of the Planning Board’s five members have resigned.
Joanna Richards reports.
Cape Vincent’s Town Council appointed a new member to the Planning Board last Tuesday, restoring a quorum so the board can once again do business. The new member is engineer and past board chairman Cyril “Butch” Cullen.
Of the three members who resigned – chairman Richard Edsall and members Patrick McCarthy and Thomas Rienbeck – only one gave a reason in his official notification to the town clerk. Rienbeck cited threats against him and his family relating to wind development.
Urban Hirschey, town supervisor, says he figures all three members who resigned had their own reasons, but they were all feeling some of the same pressures, too.
“If there’s some commonality, it’s probably because of the controversy that has been going on and maybe they’ve just felt that it was time to step down, to step aside. Ah, it might also be Article X, that was recently passed,” Hirschey said.
Article X establishes a centralized, one-year state process for siting power generation projects. It was passed into law late last month. Developers with projects currently under local review can continue with that process, but they may be able to switch to central permitting by appealing to a state committee.
Meanwhile, years after wind developers first approached the community, the town has yet to develop a zoning law governing wind turbines, Supervisor Hirschey said. “The issue really is, ordinarily a Planning Board member has a guide, a playbook. And that playbook is the zoning law. The zoning laws are formulated by the town board. The town board has been unable, for the last two years, to adopt a zoning law pertaining to wind turbines.”
That leaves Planning Board members to interpret guidelines from studies by the Department of Environmental Conservation and others about noise, environmental impacts, health effects and more.
Thomas Rienbeck said the town’s inability to pass a wind law and the new state Article X law were both factors in his decision to resign from the Planning Board. He also spoke of an overall feeling of frustration, helplessness and hostility in his role.
“Well there’s – it appears to be like there’s no give-and-take. The pro-people want what they want, and they want minimum limits on these things, and the people that are against them, their thing is they just don’t want ’em, period. And so where are you going to come to common ground on somethin’ like that? You’re really not.”
Rienbeck, a former town supervisor, said when the town faced another contentious issue – whether to locate a state prison there – things got nasty, but it was over in a matter of months. But the town has been fighting over wind since 2003. Rienbeck says the stress was becoming too much, especially after he had a heart attack in April.
“When you get to be my age and you have an issue that maybe brings you close to death, it makes you think a little more about what’s important in life to you, and my wife and family are more important to me than what’s going on here with these wind issues.”
Supervisor Urban Hirschey says the Town Council will likely fill the two remaining slots on the Planning Board within 60 days. Those appointments will have big implications for whether wind power goes forward in Cape Vincent.
For North Country Public Radio/WRVO, I’m Joanna Richards in Watertown.
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