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Niagara County Legislature endorses Collins wind bill

LOCKPORT – The Niagara County Legislature on Tuesday endorsed Rep. Chris Collins’ bill that would in effect block a proposed local wind power project.

The Legislature is concerned that the presence of wind turbines proposed for sites in the towns of Somerset and Yates, some 25 miles from the Niagara Falls Air Reserve Station, would interfere with operations there and tempt the Pentagon to place the base on a closure list the next time Congress directs military cutbacks.

Niagara Falls survived two attempts to close it since 1995 by lobbying the Base Realignment and Closure Commission.

Collins, R-Clarence, introduced a bill Nov. 29 to ban tax credits for wind power projects within 40 miles of a military base. Federal tax credits have played a key role in the growth of the wind power industry, and would be part of the Somerset-Yates project.

A top officer at the base, Col. Joseph D. Janik, operations group commander for the 914th Airlift Wing, one of two units at the base, told The Buffalo News in October that the Apex Clean Energy project would not interfere with operations, especially after the base switches from transport planes to tanker planes next spring.

However, county legislators don’t want to take any chances with Niagara County’s largest employer, with some 2,600 jobs.

“Anything to affect the air space is going to have a negative impact on the air base,” said Legislator John Syracuse, R-Newfane.

The Apex project, called Lighthouse Wind, proposes to erect as many as 70 turbines, each as tall as 620 feet, counting the length of the spinning blades, at yet-to-be-announced locations in Somerset and Yates. A state siting board has control over whether the project is approved.

Syracuse said the county can’t afford to take the chance that the presence of the turbines might get in the way of future assigns for the air base. “My understanding is, we need to be creative in attracting missions,” he said.

Syracuse also noted that a lobbying firm used by Apex to support the local wind project, Cassidy & Associates, is also representing another military base, Fort Campbell, Md., and is arguing against wind power in its neighborhood. “They can’t have it both ways,” he said.

Also Tuesday, a public hearing on the proposed 2017 county budget drew no speakers. The Legislature is poised to adopt the budget next Tuesday. At present, it stands at $338.8 million, down $575,000 from this year. The countywide average tax rate is to fall by 11 cents per $1,000 of assessed valuation.

Majority Leader Randy R. Bradt, R-North Tonawanda, said he expects no big changes in the spending plan before its adoption. “We have some little minor tweaks, but nothing major. We like where we’re at,” Bradt said.

One of those changes is a 2.5 percent raise for County Attorney Claude A. Joerg, to $111,828 a year. A public hearing will be held next Tuesday at 7 p.m. on that salary change.

Other department heads will receive 2 percent pay increases in the budget.