SOMERSET – Despite the widespread opposition to a proposed wind power project in Somerset and the adjoining Orleans County Town of Yates, the promoters have been able to sign leases with several longtime local farmers to build the turbines on their land.
The leases cover more than 5,000 acres, more than 90 percent of that in Somerset.
Although the documents on public record are silent as to the amount to be paid, Richard M. Austin, one of the Somerset landowners who signed up, said he was promised $15,000 per year for every turbine Apex Clean Energy builds on his property.
He leased about 500 acres to Apex, a Charlottesville, Va., company proposing the project, estimated to cost $300 million to $400 million, under the name of Lighthouse Wind LLC.
“I’m a dairy farmer, and every dime we can get is a dime we get,” said Austin, whose family’s 200-head herd makes it one of the smaller players in the modern dairy industry.
Austin said the farmers on either side of his farm have about 1,000 cows each. One of them is Atwater Farms, whose seventh-generation owner, Benjamin Atwater, has leased numerous parcels to Apex.
Atwater attended a Niagara County Legislature meeting Aug. 4 to speak in favor of the Apex project. He was the only one who did. The audience was packed with Somerset residents opposed to the project, and the Legislature unanimously passed a resolution of opposition to the plan.
“We feel having wind turbines on our land is a good way to diversify,” Atwater told the Legislature. He blamed the opposition on “fear of the unknown.”
Atwater told the lawmakers, “There has been overwhelming support by landowners in the proposed project area.”
The eight leases on file in the Niagara County Clerk’s Office were signed between December and March, and cover 34 parcels in Somerset, of varying sizes. Each lease is for seven years, but Apex has the right to renew the agreements, first for 30 years, then for 10 years and then for nine more years. Despite the potential length of the leases, an Apex spokeswoman said the expected operational life of the project is 25 to 30 years. The leases give Apex 18 months to restore the leased property to its original condition once the lease ends or is terminated.
“Out of respect for the privacy of those who have signed leases with us, we do not disclose the value of individual lease payments,” Dahvi Wilson, Apex senior public affairs manager, told The Buffalo News via email. “I can tell you that every landowner in the project will receive the same deal, and the payment structure is dependent on the types of facilities that are ultimately placed on a particular parcel, if the project is built.”
Austin said, “They have no idea where their turbines are going.” And it’s true that Apex has yet to file documents that pinpoint that.
Wilson said a preliminary scoping statement will go to the state Public Service Commission this fall, and the formal application is expected to be submitted in the first quarter of 2016.
“Because we have not yet collected enough information to design a final turbine layout, we do not yet know which of the landowners who have signed leases with us will receive facilities,” she said. “The landowners who have signed are aware that they are not guaranteed to receive turbines on their land, and they have determined that they wish to participate anyway.”
The company has told town officials that it might construct as many as 70 turbines in Somerset and Yates, close enough to catch the breezes off Lake Ontario. The turbines could be as much as 600 feet high, which would make them the tallest structures in New York State outside of New York City, according to John Riggi of Yates, president of Save Ontario Shores, also called SOS, an anti-windmill group.
“I would like to sincerely thank the members of the Niagara County Legislature for the clear support of their constituents in opposing the Lighthouse Wind project,” Riggi said. He called for Niagara and Orleans counties to form “a united front against this industrial wind turbine project.”
Wilson of Apex said the landowners who have signed up “believe a wind energy facility in Yates and Somerset will be good for the local economy and complementary to their farming operations. Unlike many transmission companies and municipalities, wind energy developers do not have the power of eminent domain, so we are only able to build wind facilities in locations where a large number of local landowners are supportive of such a project.”
The town’s official opposition so far has no outlet. The state altered the law on wind power sites in 2011 by placing the decision in the hands of a siting board, a majority of whose members are state officials. Only two local residents are to be included, and they will be chosen by the Assembly speaker and the State Senate majority leader.
There would be host community agreements if the project is approved. Wilson said, “We conservatively estimate that a project of this size would provide over $1.5 million per year in benefits to the local taxing jurisdictions, which include the towns of Somerset and Yates, as well as Niagara and Orleans counties. These specific payments will be required by any permit we may receive, and the final amounts and distributions will be determined through negotiation with the taxing jurisdictions.”
Riggi said his feeling toward the lease signers is one of “passionate incredulity.” At the Legislature meeting, he told them they “do not live on an island.”
In an interview, he denied rumors that SOS is financed by Big Oil or by the coal industry that supplies the coal-fired Upstate New York Power Producers plant in Somerset, despite the federal and state government’s moves to curtail coal-burning power plants.
“We’re not connected with anybody,” Riggi said. “We all live in Somerset and Yates, and we see (Lighthouse Wind) for what it is: a government-endorsed boondoggle.”
Besides the tall towers that would be visible from Buffalo on a clear day, the project’s whirling blades would endanger birds, and the “infrasound” of the turbines would vibrate the ground and scare birds and animals away, Riggi charged. He said the same forces would negatively impact the health of nearby residents.
Riggi predicted that Apex, which sought 12,000 acres, will offer to pay more money to landowners so it won’t have to shrink its project.
Engert said that the decision on “the industrial transformation of our landscape, the health concerns, the property value considerations, the size, scope, placement and ultimate decision of this project and any project like this in New York State, in my opinion, should rest with the local community. Article X took that right to “home rule” and I will fiercely fight to restore the voice of my community in this project regardless.”
Apex spokeswoman Wilson said, “During construction, a project of this size would create about 300 full-time construction jobs, many of which would be filled from the local and Western New York region. During the 25-30 year operational life of the project, Lighthouse Wind would have a well paid full-time staff of eight to 13 operations and maintenance workers, who would live and shop in the community. Finally, the landowners who participate in the project would receive more than $1 million per year in lease payments.”
As for the farmers who signed the leases, they are eager to see the Apex project receive the green light.
“They were at the County Fair. I told them, ‘Let’s get her going,’ ” Austin said. “We pay a bushel of taxes on the land we have.”