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Wind farm under scrutiny by Broome residents

Sixty-six-year-old Jim Donowick is about to score his second rural land lease jackpot in the past 10 years.

The Town of Sanford resident, owner of 116-acres of largely forest-land, landed his first lease deal in May 2008. As one of a collection of Broome County property owners he collected $2,411 an acre for mineral rights for the underground natural gas reserve thought to be stored a mile below the surface.

Now, he stands to be paid anywhere between $2,500 to $30,000 annually for at least 20 years to site a 600-foot wind turbine on a ridge within his property line.

Donowick collected natural gas lease money without a shovelful of dirt being turned. New York banned a controversial plan to drill in the gas-rich Marcellus Shale three years ago citing potential adverse environmental and health impacts.

Many others expecting to sign Calpine leases are in same position as Donowick. With a contract from XTO thought to be expired, they are more than willing to accept payments from the new suitor.

These eastern Broome County land owners are more likely to have a windmill on their land within the next three years as Calpine Corp., a Houston-based energy company, proceeds with lengthy and complex wind farm application process with the state Public Service Commission. In places where it banned fracking, New York is encouraging the development of renewable energy projects with incentives and tax credits under Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s plan to produce 50 percent of the state’s electric needs from sustainable sources by 2030.

“They’re picking spots in the middle of nowhere,” Donowick said. “I have spent my whole life on these hills thinking they have wind power potential.”

For three hours on Thursday evening, a half dozen Calpine representatives stood beside maps and slides at Deposit’s State Theater explaining what this 40 turbine project would bring to communities hugging Route 17.

For the landowners that lease property to developers, it will bring at least 20 years annual annuity payments from a Calpine for the right to site a turbine on the land.

Other residents, however, are not as pleased.

“I can’t see the benefit,” said Joanne McGigney, a real estate agent with United Country Real Estate in Deposit. “One of the best things about Deposit is the aesthetic beauty and I see no aesthetic beauty in those ugly towers.”

She predicts surrounding land values will decline once the towers are constructed, noting the constant drone from the turning blades.

“Most of these people hate them,” said Roy Morgan, a Windsor property owner. “But if you get paid enough it’s acceptable.”

Calpine still has a long path ahead. Preliminary plans are now on file with state regulators and more than half the lease sites have been identified. But a more complete application, with environmental studies, including data on potential bald and golden eagle kills from the turbine blades, must be submitted.

Electricity to power an estimated 20,000 households won’t be generated from the project until at least 2020.

Elmira mineral rights lawyer Chris Denton left Thursday’s session puzzled, saying there may be an environmental double standard – cursory reviews for wind projects while higher standards are applied to fossil fuel projects.

“These turbines are on top of mountains – really fragile environments,” Denton said. “I just want the DEC (Department of Environmental Conservation) to apply the same rigorous examination as they did with oil and gas.”