COOPERSTOWN – A proposed six-turbine wind farm that would bracket U.S. Route 20 in the town of Richfield has hit a snag in the form of a court ruling nullifying a special-use permit the town gave to the developers.
In a 20-page decision, state Supreme Court Judge Donald Cerio found that the Richfield Planning Board violated the state Open Meetings Law when – faced with a large crowd at the town office building Nov. 22 – it suddenly decided to shift the session to the nearby Trinity Christian Church.
Cerio said the board members “should have anticipated” a big crowd for the meeting on the controversial project, and that they failed to provide reasonable notice of the change of venue, as required by state law.
The judge also found it was inappropriate to hold the meeting in a church, saying the setting evoked a “sense of intrusion or intimidation” that led some attendees to report they were too “uncomfortable” to participate in the public hearing.
The judge also ruled that the board should have held a second public hearing on the special-use permit application by Monticello Wind LLC – the name given to the project by Ridgeline Energy of Albany – after it decided that it did not require a comprehensive environmental review.
Cerio’s decision stopped far short of thwarting the project, however. He ruled that “windmills of any nature are not specifically prohibited” by the town’s land-use laws – effectively giving the developers an opportunity to make another run at receiving a special-use permit for the wind farm.
Owen Grant, the project manager for Ridgeline Energy, advised The Daily Star in an email: “We are committed to the project, which will offer economic, environmental and public health benefits.
“We are pleased that the court affirmed the substance of the Planning Board’s review and decision,” Grant said. “We will work through the ruling and determine the best course of action to address the minor procedural matters identified by the court.”
Douglas H. Zamelis, a Springfield attorney who represented the citizens who brought the lawsuit challenging the decision by the local board, said: “The wind company is now back at Square One.”
“Our objective was to annul the approvals – and that’s what we’ve done,” Zamelis added. “I am extremely pleased for the people of the town of Richfield and their neighbors.” He also said it was appropriate that Cerio, in his ruling, directed that the planning board members enroll in state training on how to properly conduct public meetings.
Carol Frigault, one of the wind farm neighbors helping to lead the opposition to the project, said: “We’re thrilled that the permit is being annulled. It wasn’t a perfect decision for us, but we’re hoping the town can do the right thing for all of the citizens by enacting a moratorium on all industrial uses for one year so these types of projects won’t harm the residents.”
Town Supervisor Francis Enjem, who took office in January, said he proposed a sweeping moratorium that would stop any industrialization of the town for one year, giving local officials time to adjust heir land use laws in a way that is consistent with the town’s vision for its future.
Enjem said he was unable to muster sufficient votes to schedule a public hearing on the proposed moratorium because two members of his board, Mary Margaret Snyder and Bonnie Domion, abstained from voting. They indicated they needed more time to familiarize themselves with the proposal.
Frigault said opponents of the wind farm project are expected to flock to next month’s town board meeting to urge the panel to schedule a public hearing on the proposed moratorium.
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