BUFFALO, N.Y. – The High Sheldon Wind Project in upstate New York has been in operation for four years. But for nearly a decade before that the development was an uphill struggle for the elected leaders of a 200-year-old dairy farming community who envisioned a vast system of wind turbines along the shores of Lake Erie.
Town Administrator (read “mayor”) John Knab, 74, has a calm disposition that draws your attention, especially when the subject is his true passion—either antique farm equipment or wind energy.
“My wife says I could talk all day about Oliver tractors and the turbines,” Knab says with a clipped northern accent as he stands directly beneath one of the 300-foot-tall turbines—there are 75 in all—dotting the ridge that slices through his community.
Knab also has fortitude—more than most. Along the eight-year path to a prosperous wind turbine project in his township, Knab says he endured raucous public hearings, fear and misinformation, a handful of unsuccessful lawsuits and at least one death threat.
“Our regular meetings went from about two people to two hundred people,” Knab says. “I got really good at banging the gavel.”
Texas-based Pioneer Green Energy, which hopes to build two wind farms totaling around 55 turbines along Shinbone Ridge in Cherokee and Etowah counties, sanctioned the April 3-4 trip to western New York in hopes of drawing a large group of local officials and decision makers so they could hear from a community that has already fought the battle that looms in northeast Alabama.
In the end, only three participants from Gadsden joined two media representatives from Centre (including this writer), to hear Knab and others from Sheldon talk about what effects the wind turbine farm has had on them and their neighbors.
A published history of the township commissioned after the wind turbines began spinning in spring 2009 explains that the plan faced opposition from the beginning.
“It was a bumpy road before the 75 turbines went up,” the booklet reads. “Some town residents were in favor of the plan, while others pointed to the danger it would bring to birds and bats, as well as what they considered to be an obstruction to the countryside’s beauty.”
Opponents in northeast Alabama also worry over the danger to wildlife and the prospect of diminishing of the beauty of Cherokee Rock Village, as well as the noise from the massive, spinning blades. (Standing directly beneath a turbine last week, the sound was most accurately compared to the swishing a pair of polyester pants makes while walking.)
Additional concerns include fear of a phenomenon called “shadow flicker” for residents whose homes lie along a path where the shadow of a turbine’s spinning blades would crawl past as the sun tracks across the sky.
“That’s about the only complaint we still hear,” says Mary Kehl, referring to the shadow effect. Kehl, a lifelong resident of Wyoming County who now works for the energy company that manages High Sheldon, adds, “Anyone who has called and wanted a reasonable solution to the problem, those people are long and done.”
Kehl says the shadow flicker problem can be solved by window treatments or tree plantings, both offered by her company at no charge.
Declining property values in Cherokee County have also been mentioned as a concern if the Shinbone project proceeds, but Sheldon dairy farmer Jim Fontaine disagrees with that impression.
“I purchased 150 acres about three years ago that has two turbines on it, and if there had been a problem with property values I never would have purchased it,” Fontaine says. “As far as property values there is no negative impact.”
Other than the solidarity of those adamantly opposed to the idea of wind turbines, there are few direct comparisons to the High Sheldon project and those being proposed in northeast Alabama.
For example, in New York local communities have the authority to regulate themselves, unlike in Alabama where most laws must snake their way through the state Legislature. Those rowdy meetings Knab and his fellow elected officials endured during the approval process, which lasted from 2001 to 2007, broke so many gavels because local elected officials were literally deciding the long-term future of their community with each vote.
A recent meeting of the Cherokee County Commission drew dozens of wind turbine opponents, but with only limited home rule powers the county’s governing body has little control over what a private landowner wants to do on his own property.
Back in New York, 38 different land owners took in the High Sheldon project. And every resident ultimately benefitted from the project because annual royalty payments from Invenergy, the Chicago-based company that manages the turbines, total several hundred thousand dollars and have allowed the local leadership to suspend all town taxes.
If the Shinbone project is constructed in Cherokee County, all eight turbines will sit on property owned by one family, so the direct financial windfall will not be nearly as widespread. (A recent economic study conducted by Jacksonville State University estimates the Shinbone project will generate around $300,000 annually in property taxes for Cherokee County, a little over half of which would go to the local school system.)
Another difference is that Invernegy developed the High Sheldon project from the beginning. Pioneer Green, ostensibly, would construct the turbines in northeast Alabama and then sell the operation to an as-yet unknown energy company to operate for the next 20-30 years. That uncertainty creates concern for some local leaders.
Paul Kirsch says whatever uncertainty he might have had about wind energy is long gone. Kirsh is yet another Sheldon dairy farmer who also serves on the town council. His home sits within 2,500 feet of three wind turbines.
“The only time I look at them is to see which way the wind is blowing before I go out to spread manure,” Kirsch says with a smile. Of the wind turbine project, he says, “This is the best thing that has ever happened in Sheldon.”
Currently, Pioneer Green’s proposed projects in Alabama are in stand-by mode, waiting for the results of several studies and final approval to proceed from the Tennessee Valley Authority. Even if those approvals come, the company will have to deal with a vocal, dedicated opposition to green energy technology along the pine-covered ridges of Cherokee County.
Pioneer Green will hold an open house for Cherokee County residents Saturday, April 13 from 2 p.m. to 5 p.m. during the Chamber of Commerce’s annual Home and Garden Show. Several officials from the company will be on hand to answer questions about the Shinbone Wind Project.
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