November 12, 2016
New York

Town of Somerset budgets big money to fight windmills

By Thomas Prohaska | The Buffalo News | Published Fri, Nov 11, 2016 |

SOMERSET – To fight a controversial wind power project, the Town of Somerset is planning to more than double what it spends on lawyers and engineers in 2017.

The Town Board approved a budget Wednesday night with the hefty increases in allocations for attorneys and engineers to oppose Apex Clean Energy, which is seeking permission to build as many as 70 wind turbines in Somerset and the neighboring Town of Yates, Supervisor Daniel M. Engert said.

Next year, Apex, working under the name of Lighthouse Wind, is expected to file a final application with the state Public Service Department with the exact locations of the turbines, each of which are expected to be as much as 620 feet tall, counting the length of the propeller blades.

Somerset is officially opposed to the project, since a mail survey of all town property owners in 2015 showed 67 percent opposition to the plan. Opponents say the turbines, each of which is to be built within a few miles of Lake Ontario, could be ugly, noisy and harmful to property values and migratory birds.

The decision on whether the 201-megawatt project is built would be in the hands of a siting board composed primarily of state bureaucrats. There are two local members on the seven-person board.

The 2017 town budget includes $200,000 for attorney fees and $100,000 for engineering expenses. This year’s budget allocated $85,000 for attorneys and $35,000 for engineers. In 2015, the town spent only $39,000 on lawyers.

“Engineering and legal, that’s where all our experts are funded,” Engert said. He said the town will have to conduct studies of the various environmental issues posed by the Apex application in order to make a strong presentation to the siting board.

“I’m merely budgeting appropriately to deal with the applications and a study,” Engert said. “I think we’ve set an appropriate amount aside to deal with the application.”

Not all Somerset residents are pleased with the town spending so much to fight the proposed wind turbines.

“We’re spending $300,000 to fight development in the Town of Somerset,” complained Richard Meyers, who supports the wind project. “And another budget line for economic development, we cut it from $14,000 to $10,000.”

The state law governing wind projects says the developer must supply opponents with so-called “intervenor funds” to reimburse them for some of their costs. The money is being divided among Somerset, Yates and the anti-wind power citizen group Save Ontario Shores.

Engert said Somerset has not yet received any money from that source. He said the town is entitled to about $40,000 of a total of $70,000 Apex must pay for the preliminary stage.

Once the final application is filed, the opponents will split up an intervenor payment of $1,000 per megawatt, or $201,000.

“This arbitrary number is proving to be woefully inadequate,” Engert said.

He said the intervenor money cannot be spent on litigation, which has already begun. Apex sued the town last week to try to stop the Planning Board from delaying the project by requiring the company to submit a long environmental impact form for two temporary weather monitoring towers. The suit noted the town gave Apex permission to build one of those in 2014 without requiring the extra red tape.

Somerset has hired former State Attorney General Dennis C. Vacco and other attorneys from the Buffalo firm of Lippes Mathias Wexler Friedman to battle Apex. Fees range from $150 to $270 an hour.

An Apex spokeswoman declined to comment on the town budget Thursday.

Despite the big increases in legal and engineering costs, the total spending in Somerset’s $2.9 million budget for 2017 is actually down 2.3 percent, or almost $70,000, from this year’s budget. The amount to be collected in taxes is going up 2.76 percent, or $16,000, while the town appropriates about $129,000 less from its surpluses than it did this year.

The budget assumes the town will receive about $448,000 in sales tax revenue, which would be a $48,000 increase, but Engert said he’s shifting it around, spending less of that money on the Highway Department and garbage collection and more on the general fund. That means it can be applied to the legal and engineering costs of the wind power fight.

The town is expecting to reduce its employee health insurance costs by $35,000 and to lower its garbage costs by $12,000, and there were other spending cuts in the plan to help bring it into balance.

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