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Wind farm project kicks up storm in Villenova

VILLENOVA – When Renewable Energy Systems representatives planned for a public hearing in Villenova regarding the proposed Ball Hill Wind Project, they may not have guessed exactly how much hearing of the public they’d be doing.

But, though Villenova is known for its sweeping vistas of pastoral countryside and Americana-inspiring farmland, its residents do not fit the stereotype of quiet country folk. They’ve got strong opinions, articulated ideas, and the stamina to argue at length for what they believe in.

Thursday night, those residents packed the Hamlet United Methodist Church on Route 83. Cars crowded the church parking lot and filled the overflow lot across the street. Additional cars lined the shoulderless road, their owners caring more about hearing and being heard than about potential sideswipe damage. For part of the night, in that century-old church, it was standing room only.

After the public had been welcomed by Villenova Town Supervisor Richard Ardillo and Mark Lyons, the RES project manager, had explained the project’s shrunken footprint, it was time to hear from the townspeople.

Tina Graziano kicked it off with a letter she read to the crowd, saying that she was against the project and that those in charge of it shouldn’t assume they have the support of the entire township – especially when not everyone in town receives communications from RES.

“We live outside the project area, and will view over 20 turbines, as our neighbors will also,” she said, making the point that everyone should receive notices from RES, not just the landowners who will have turbines, underground wires or gravel roads on their properties. “They also did not receive any notifications. I’m still running into residents of Villenova who still do not know about this project, and when I do hear some talk, they seem to be very lacking in the facts of these turbines.”

Other attendees, like Michael Emke-Walker and Dave Ivett, were in favor of the project, pointing out the poverty that many of the town’s citizens struggle with day in and day out, challenges made tougher in the winter when cold weather sets in. Howard Crowell said he is sick of seeing young people, like his own son, leave town because there’s no economic stability to support them.

Michael Garrett, a Forestville resident, urged community members to think about the damage to the environment that could happen as a result of the windmills. He said that, over time, turbines kill countless bats and birds, and that even though wind turbines claim to be earth-friendly, they aren’t.

Lyons responded, saying that while turbines could hurt animals, extensive studies have been done on the windmills’ impact on the environment, and that RES works closely with multiple environmental agencies to mitigate that damage. As the OBSERVER previously reported and Lyons noted Thursday, the number of turbines has been decreased, along with total project acreage. In addition to that, RES has promised not to run the turbines during a certain time period in select seasons, to help protect the long-eared bat, which is endangered.

Garrett wasn’t buying it, but many in the crowd did. Emke-Walker said that outdoor cats kill thousands of birds every year, but no one ships them out. Garrett asked everyone to watch a documentary called “Windfall,” (windfallthemovie.com/), which studies the negative effects wind turbines had on Meredith, a town in upstate New York not so different from Villenova. Garrett claimed it’s pretty common for energy companies to target poor, rural towns whose residents are falling on desperate times.

Some abhorred the idea of turbines spoiling their idyllic views; others said beauty was in the eye of the beholder.

What about noise pollution? Wind turbine syndrome? Shadow flicker?

Not real, said Lyons.

Still, others in the crowd had concerns of a different nature. Eliot Jimerson, who is a representative of International Union of Operating Engineers Local 17, asked who would be hired to build these turbines. Could local workers get the jobs? Eliot asked everyone to think about their community, not just themselves, and decide what’s best for everyone and for the future.

Lyons said RES “always hires local to the extent that (they) can,” and that it wouldn’t make financial sense to ship out-of-state workers to Villenova for the building phase, anyway. “There will be many jobs for a short period of time,” he said.

The conversation lasted more than two hours, with Dan Spitzer, the attorney representing Villenova and Hanover (the other municipality involved), saying that anyone who didn’t get to speak or who had an afterthought to share could send a letter to the town clerk within 10 days of the public hearing.

Spitzer also pointed out that nothing was set in stone yet: each town’s board will have to vote whether or not to move forward with the project, and those votes can’t take place until all necessary studies have been completed.

Villenova does have one board member, Sarah LoManto, who has recused herself from wind farm business from the beginning, since she is a landowner who would profit from the project, and therefore has a conflict of interest. Spitzer called her actions “admirable.” Members of the audience agreed, but lamented that LoManto won’t be able to vote. Spitzer explained that it’s state law for LoManto to stay out of it.

With town-wide tax incentives, PILOT payments and host community agreements promising to bring money in for decades to come, this dangling carrot will be tough for town boards not to chase. However, as Chautauqua County Legislator George Borrello pointed out at a recent County IDA meeting, no buyer for the energy to be generated by the turbines has been secured to date, and as Lyons himself said Thursday, this plan rests on creating and selling energy.

For those who want to send statements to the town clerk in Villenova, either for or against the wind project, or with questions directed to Lyons and his staff, the address is 1094 Butcher Road, South Dayton, NY 14138.