Love them or hate them, wind farms continue to stir up a storm of controversy in Western New York.
The most recent project, Stony Creek Wind Farm in the tiny town of Orangeville, calls for as many as 59 wind turbines to be built in that rural community.
And with more than 200 turbines already turning in Sheldon, Wethersfield and Eagle, it seems like Wyoming County will retain its claim as the wind capital of Western New York.
With New York State’s goal of having 30 percent of the state’s energy needs supplied by clean, renewable energy sources, the landscape is changing throughout the state. The Long Island Power Authority and Consolidated Edison recently applied for permits to build a massive wind farm off Long Island with a capacity of 350 to 700 megawatts.
Although the Stony Creek project has been approved by the Town Board and is slated to begin in the spring, many residents have raised concerns, including noise levels and the effect of the project on wildlife, and two lawsuits have been filed to try to stop the project.
Town Supervisor Susan Mays said those issues have been addressed by the town from the beginning.
“We have looked at everything they’ve submitted, and all of their material was included in each of the studies that was done,” she said. “The Town Board looked at everything thoroughly, and that’s how we came to our conclusion.”
“You’re always going to have opposition to projects like these,” she said.
Eric Miller, director of business development for Invenergy, the company erecting the windmills, said the Stony Creek project “will create more than 100 jobs and provide millions of dollars in new revenue to local businesses and contractors during construction.”
“Once operational, it will employ four to six full-time staff,” Miller said. “The town will benefit from 7.5 miles of town roads that will be rebuilt by Stony Creek at the completion of construction.”
Mays also said payments from the project developer to the town would amount to about $667,000 a year for the first 20 years of the project, which would eliminate town taxes for residents.
“The Stony Creek Wind Farm is far and away the largest economic development project in our town’s history,” Mays said. “It not only provides significant and direct economic development benefits to the town and its taxpayers, but it will result in hundreds of construction jobs and millions of dollars in revenue to local businesses during these very difficult times. The amount that we will get for the 59 turbines will eliminate town taxes and there is also $750,000 for road reconstruction for the roads used for the project.”
The approval for Stony Creek comes after the addition of six windmills on the former Bethlehem Steel site along Lake Erie and the approval by the Allegany Town Board in August for 29 wind turbines above Chipmunk Road. The two projects are among 17 renewable energy projects in the state to receive funding through a program aimed at reducing the state’s dependence on fossil fuels.
But windmill fever will not extend into the lake. A plan to put up to 150 wind turbines in Lakes Erie and Ontario was halted after the New York Power Authority determined it would be too expensive.
In Orangeville, not everyone agrees on the Stony Creek wind farm’s economic impact on the town.
“The basic question is whether the benefits outweigh the burden,” said Gary Abraham, attorney for Clear Skies Over Orangeville, a coalition of town residents that has taken the town to court over the issue.
As for the potential revenue from the project, Abraham said there is no guarantee that will happen.
“It’s not a great feat to eliminate town taxes,” Abraham said. “It’s really kind of a cruel joke. In other towns, they’ve just spent [the income] on other things. They’re not reducing town taxes. There’s no guarantee that’s not going to happen in Orangeville. And the town’s taxes are only 15 percent of a person’s property taxes.”
Although the lower courts sided with the town in the Clear Skies suit earlier this year, the group is continuing the fight, seeking a hearing from the New York State Court of Appeals.
“In 2009, the town adopted a law regulating wind farms, and we sued the town,” Abraham said. “We claim that the law is not supported by any evidence. It adopts a noise standard that is outrageously high based on [state Department of Environmental Conservation] standards. We’re hoping the highest court in New York will address this issue.”
A second lawsuit is pending, brought by resident Robert White, who is seeking to declare the tower’s area variance null and void. He maintains the tower would be within 800 feet of a cabin on his property, violating town setback requirements. His next court date is scheduled for Nov. 9. White declined to be interviewed by The Buffalo News.
Even after a project is completed, the controversy continues. Glenn Cramer, a former Sheldon town councilman, said his town is still divided over the issue.
“I wouldn’t use Sheldon as an example of a successful wind farm,” he told The News. “It is another example of why industrial wind farms do not belong anywhere near people. The town will be forever divided.”
Cramer said that in addition to the noise, the shadow flicker – the shadow cast when a large windmill blade sweeps in front of the sun – can be a problem. Some people who live near windmills in other areas have complained that the effect is like a light switch being rapidly turned on and off.
“When someone from Sheldon supports the wind farm, ask him or her what he or she stands to gain financially from it. I think you will see a direct relationship. Some residents have gained from the wind farm, but it has been at the expense of their neighbors.”
News Staff Reporter Barbara O’Brien contributed to this report.