SOMERSET – A townwide survey on wind power generation has been commissioned by the town board.
The board OK’d the paper survey at its business meeting last week. The survey is to be printed and mailed to roughly 1,000 households, including both full- and part-time residents, by Summit Printing of Lockport, this coming week. Copies are to be numbered and watermarked to prevent counting of duplicate submissions and/or photocopied submissions by non-residents.
The board set a return date of June 16 on completed surveys and resolved that the results will be published on the town website no later than June 22.
The survey, prompted by the suggested Lighthouse Wind project in Somerset and neighboring Yates, “will go a long way to provide guidance to the board regarding the true desires of the community,” town Supervisor Daniel M. Engert said, “and it will also be a matter of record to provide further consideration for the PSC Siting Board if a project is ever submitted.”
The Public Service Commission has oversight of large-scale wind energy projects statewide. Apex Clean Energy is known to have approached landowners in Somerset and Yates about hosting Lighthouse Wind, a wind farm that could consist, potentially, of up to 70, 570-foot-high turbines.
The exact size and number of turbines, and their location, are all unknown, since Apex has not yet applied to the state for permission to erect a wind farm. The estimates are based on information in the company’s application for a place in line to connect a 201-megawatt generating project to the power grid in the future.
Although Apex representatives have been in communication with the town about Lighthouse Wind for several years, suddenly, since the beginning of this year, opposition to the project has become loud and fierce. That’s in sharp contrast to residents’ general support of smaller-scale wind power projects suggested previously by now-dissolved AES Somerset and Empire State Wind Energy LLC.
The survey seeks insight into townspeople’s true feelings about wind power generation, according to Engert.
Public opinion “seems to have changed. Maybe it hasn’t,” he said. “What is the issue? Do residents oppose wind under any circumstances? It is the size of the turbines? The number?”
The town board also ordered creation of a special committee to review and possibly revise the town’s 2006 law governing local siting of wind turbines, and an appeal to the PSC to extend a public comment period on developers’ preliminary plans past the current 21 days.
Permitting of large-scale energy generation facilities is by New York State, not local municipalities, under the state’s revised Article X law adopted in 2011. A PSC Siting Board will approve or reject Apex’s application, if it submits one.
The siting board is supposed to consider local opinions, and local laws regulating turbine siting, but it may reject laws that it deems to be “unreasonably burdensome” on developers.
With that in mind, the special committee will study recent scientific developments and research and consider whether the town’s siting law needs “strengthening,” Engert said.
If revisions are recommended, the trick will be avoiding a rewrite that gets shot down by PSC for unreasonability. No one knows what that looks like, since Somerset and Yates are, potentially, the first towns in New York state to contend with the revised Article X process.
The special committee, to be led by town planner Andrew Reilly, will consist of: Engert; the town planning board chairman; residents recommended by Niagara County Legislature Chairman Bill Ross and Barker Mayor Aaron Nellist, one each; residents representing Barker Central School District, the Town of Somerset Historical Society, Niagara County Farm Bureau, Niagara USA Chamber and the county Fisheries Advisory Board, one each; two members of Save Ontario Shores Inc., the grassroots organization that opposes Lighthouse Wind; and a representative of and a resident selected by Apex Clean Energy.
“We want to have all sides talking together about this,” Engert said.
Nominations by the listed entities are to be submitted to the town clerk by June 26. The committee’s first meeting is to be held no later than July 24, and its findings are due to the town board by Feb. 29, 2016, according to the authorizing resolution.
As for the town board’s appeal to the PSC to increase to 90 days the public review period for “public scoping statements” by would-be power generators, Engert suggested the present 21-day period is emblematic of what’s wrong with the Article X law generally: Locals have almost no real say in what could end up in their back yards.
The Article X process has developers completing several “pre-application” steps in which their plans are only partly disclosed; the furor over Lighthouse Wind comes as Apex completed the first pre-step, filing of a Public Involvement Plan that merely hints at its aims in Somerset-Yates.
Pre-step 2 is filing of a public scoping statement in which a general plan would be put forth, noting environmental and other studies completed and studies still needing to be done – and the state is giving the public only 21 days to review and comment on that.
“To me, this is the most unreasonable part of the law … which is really poorly constructed altogether,” Engert said. “Three weeks for residents to go through these highly technical documents is not sufficient at all.”
The three resolutions together are the town board’s attempt to “inject as much local voice and retain as much local control of the (siting) process as possible,” Engert added.
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