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Town board still on fence about wind turbine; Board concerned about cost and impact to residents

After month of debate, the Riverhead Town Board is still firmly planted on the fence about whether or not to proceed with a proposal by the Riverhead Sewer District to erect a 275-foot high wind turbine at its treatment plant off Riverside Drive.

As previously reported, the proposed turbine would cost an estimated $1.8 million, to be paid for by a bond. According to Michael Reichel, superintendent of the sewer district, the energy generated by the turbine would result in an estimated $5 million savings for taxpayers in the district over the anticipated five-year life of the turbine.

At Thursday’s town board work session, Councilwoman Jodi Giglio said she needed more information. The town still needs to bond for a state mandated $18 million sewer upgrade, she said. The upgrade needs to be complete by 2014, and with a two year construction period, Giglio said the town is already running behind.

Giglio added she was concerned that rate payers within the sewer district would have to pay additional utility costs and was worried about the financial impact on residents; she also said utility consumption in the town continues to grow.

Riverhead Town Supervisor Sean Walter said while utility consumption has increased in recent years, the rate has been stable or flat.

Walter said if it would take the town 12 years to pay off the wind turbine, he wanted to know when the proposal would spin cash positive. “If the turbine fails, you’ve lost money,” he said.

Councilman John Dunleavy said he’d feel happier with the plan if the wind turbine could be built at the landfill, and not in the heart of a residential district.

“Montauk has its lighthouse, we’d have our windmill,” Councilman Jim Wooten joked.

Another critical concern, Walter said, and one he shares with Councilman George Gabrielsen, is the lifespan of the turbine. “This is the public’s money. I need a guarantee that this windmill will last 15 years,” he said.

Reichel said the typical life span on similar wind turbines is approximately 25 years.

He added that the town would need to make a decision soon because he had already sent a resolution saying the town was not ready to utilize a $470,000 grant it had won from the New York State Environmental Facilities Corporation for the project at this time.

Those funds, he warned, could be left on the table and lost forever if the town did not decide to move forward with the project now. Additional funds have become available from the EFC, Reichel said.

Board members agreed they weren’t ready to lose the grant funding. “Don’t throw the money away yet,” Wooten said.

The board told Reichel to inform the EFC they were not ready to close the door on the grant yet.

But questions remained: Giglio said she wanted to know how much it would cost to bond the $18 million and how much would be coming out of the town’s general fund balance.

“I have a real problem speculating with taxpaper dollars,” Gabrielsen.

Dunleavy said while he believes “you have to spend money to make money,” he was concerned about the height of the wind turbine.

Reichel asked, if the board decided not to move forward with the project, if they would entertain the idea of having a private contractor install a wind turbine at their own risk on town property and sell energy less expensively.

The board agreed as long as the risk remained in the private sector, they’d feel comfortable with the plan.