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Residents question Madison Planning Board

At a regular meeting of the Town of Madison’s Planning Board on April 4, about 70 residents raised additional questions about the proposed Rolling Upland Hills Wind Farm.

Joe Koen pointed out that the environmental consultant hired to advise the Town, Clough Harbor Associates (CHA), has significant ties to the developer and asked if these ties could be construed as a conflict of interest. He then asked if the board would consider hiring a different firm without such conflicts. Board Chair Roger Williams said he would look into the matter.

Jane Welsh asked whether the Town Board would have the power to override a Planning Board decision to grant the special permit, and if so, on what basis. Significant discussion ensued about the relationship between the Town Board and the Planning Board and the powers of each, with no clear consensus on which board can override the decisions of the other.

David Sonn commented that it is the responsibility of a planning board to enforce zoning law and make decisions on land use, but wondered if there was a zoning board of appeals in the Town of Madison. Williams replied there is not, nor is there any zoning in the Town.

Nancy Ries questioned the separate functions of the Town Board, which negotiates PILOT payments, and the Planning Board, which has the permitting authority, and asked how they interact with one another. When told that the Planning Board has no interest in the financial ramifications of any project that comes before it, one resident replied, “That’s like agreeing to buy a car without knowing the price.”

Andrew Coddington said the current process is backwards, that the Planning Board is “engaging in an esoteric environmental exercise, when economic considerations should be negotiated first so the Town and the Planning Board can know what values are in play.” The Town currently receives $60,000 a year in PILOT payments from the 12 established windmills. The proposed wind farm envisions 36 windmills, which would theoretically garner about $180,000 in revenue. People generally felt that this was an unacceptable trade in terms of the impact on the residents in the project area.

Paul Crovella explained that the Planning Board’s role is to assess environmental impacts and determine whether any one project impacts the community significantly different than what is already allowed. Welsh then stated, “The ultimate question is: is it really worth it? You cannot separate the economics of a project from all the other considerations.”

Laura Wilson requested that the Planning Board take a step back and ask the Town Board to create acceptable parameters because the current special use permit regulations, enacted in April 2011, are inadequate, adding “The time to do this is now.” Fuller stated that even though the existing regulations are minimal and poorly written, they allow the Planning Board to waive anything it decides to, which leaves little protection for residents. Williams agreed that the regulations need to be redefined.

The Planning Board was asked if it would consider a moratorium period to allow time to amend the current regulations. Williams replied that it was too late to declare a moratorium, but was corrected by Welsh, an attorney who has studied the law on these issues, stating “The Town Board can declare a moratorium on any project in order to provide sufficient time to study the issues and create regulations in the best interest of its residents.”

Crovella then asked, “Where is the line? What makes the most sense for the entire community, and what standards should we impose? Is it time to float zoning once again?” Spontaneous applause broke out, but he then said that writing a zoning law will require community involvement to make decisions and achieve consensus on all issues – noise, land use, visual, etc. He stated that he was willing to make a motion to the Planning Board to postpone the wind project until zoning laws could be developed and adopted, but noted that the concept of zoning has been defeated in the past.

Koen stated that despite being initially upset, now that he has been involved with the citizen group opposing the wind farm, he no longer feels the project is unstoppable, and wants to work with the Planning Board and the Town Board to create local laws that will benefit everyone. He told the Planning Board, “You now have the incentive to create such laws with the help of some very concerned and motivated citizens,” and thanked the board for being open and receptive to everyone’s comments. Another resident also complimented the board on how they have responded to people’s concerns, and said, “It feels like we are a community now.”

The Planning Board remained divided on whether a moratorium could be enacted before the April 18 public hearing, but Welsh pointed out that that hearing is only about the dGEIS and SEQRA, and that whether or not to declare a moratorium is a completely separate issue.

Ultimately no motion was made to declare a moratorium, but the Planning Board agreed to consider the issue before its next meeting on May 2.

Chris Hoffman is a freelance writer/reporter for the Madison County Courier.