The Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation group gathers regularly at a small cabin, dubbed “the soap shack,” near the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York.
Its mission: Stop development of the North Ridge Wind Farm.
Proposed by Avangrid Renewables, a U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, the project would place up to 40 industrial wind turbines throughout rural St. Lawrence County. The massive, churning structures would generate an estimated 100 megawatts of energy – enough to power 25,000 homes.
Avangrid touts the development as a financial lifeline for the economically distressed area. St. Lawrence County has New York state’s third highest unemployment rate – 5.8 percent as of September.
The company estimates its wind farm would pump $750,000 annually into local coffers – divided among the county, two towns and the school district. It also would pay participating property owners a combined $500,000 annually for use of their land.
But opponents say the turbines will mar their unspoiled landscape of farmland and rolling hills. They want to preserve the viewshed that attracted their families to this area in the first place.
They also want to protect themselves from the problems plaguing many of their neighbors to the east, where 300 turbines from five different wind projects have generated complaints about noise, health issues and diminished property values.
“The more we learned, the more concerned we became,” said Janice Pease, a member of Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation and a stay-at-home mom from Hopkinton.
Hopkinton is one of the two towns in St. Lawrence County included in the project footprint. The other is Parishville.
Together, they have a population of some 3,200 people who currently are mired in one of the biggest controversies to hit their area in recent memory.
Like other rural communities picked to host industrial wind farms, Hopkinton and Parishville have seen neighbor pitted against neighbor and lifelong friendships frayed as residents battle over whether to allow the developments.
“It has divided the community, even families,” said Hopkinton Supervisor Sue Wood. “The majority doesn’t want the wind turbines, but the people who signed leases really want it.”
As a town official, Wood said she feels torn. She wants to make everyone happy but realizes that will never happen. And the money Avangrid has offered is nice, she said, “but at what cost to our community?”
Avangrid spokesman Paul Copleman denied any of the company’s wind developments divide communities but acknowledged the process can be controversial.
“These investments are, of course, going to represent some amount of change in the community, and we want to do the best that we can to make sure the community is a partner in bringing that change along responsibly and appropriately,” Copleman said. “I think from there people will wrestle with various questions about what it means to develop a wind farm in a community. It’s our job to do the best we can to answer those questions.”
Company representatives began soliciting property owners for leases and easement agreements in 2010. Those who signed up were offered money in exchange for giving Avangrid unfettered access to their land to conduct early studies and, eventually, erect turbines and other equipment related to the wind farm.
Some residents stand to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of the wind farm, documents show.
Some of the largest landowners in the county were among the first to sign a contract. Other landowners followed suit; Avangrid now has 37 leases covering some 8,000 acres in the county.
Not all those approached took the deal. Representatives wanted Parishville beekeeper Luke Martin to sign a contract, but Martin said he had numerous concerns about the language – specifically the parts where he would relinquish some control of his land.
The money offered wasn’t worth losing his property rights for decades, he said.
Avangrid also approached Hopkinton and Parishville officials in 2010 to discuss the project. The company held an open house in both towns to share some details with the public, according to public records.
Then talk of the wind farm stopped. Some residents thought the project died. For nearly six years, nothing seemed to happen.
But the project became active again in 2016. Avangrid filed documents with the state, met again with local officials, held more public meetings, distributed educational materials and created a website for the project.
That’s when the Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation organized.
As many as two dozen people routinely attend the group’s meetings. Members claim to have an additional 200 residents on their list of supporters.
Papers, brochures, maps and other documents clutter the small cabin that once served as a storefront for a nearby soap manufacturer. A sign reading “No industrial wind turbines” hangs in the window.
Group members go door to door, informing residents of the project and distributing signs like the one in their window.
Their placards dot the yards of likeminded homeowners throughout the community. Some neighbors, though, belong to the opposing camp. Their yards feature “Yes wind power” signs.
The citizens’ group also has collected around 800 signatures for a petition against the project.
“For me,” Pease said, “this is life and death.”
Community in chaos
Group members said they aimed for a peaceful resistance of the project, hoping to keep the small community together, but controversy became unavoidable.
Residents with wind contracts face criticism from project opponents. Project opponents face accusations of NIMBYism. Town meetings erupt in shouting matches. Letters to the editor flood the local newspaper.
In August, heightened tensions caused Hopkinton Supervisor Sue Wood to request police at a public hearing about the project. The meeting became so disruptive that officials ejected a man who refused to let pro-project neighbors speak. He was later allowed to re-enter.
An pro-wind group called North County for a Brighter Future stoked the flames with an ad in the local newspaper: “Should the town of Hopkinton turn its back on $38 million ($15 million of which goes to landowners through leases and good neighbor agreements) in renewable energy revenue over a 30-year period because of scare tactics by a few people, mostly from Parishville?”
The New York Public Service Commission has received more than 400 comments about the project from residents in the past year alone.
“Wind turbines are green like the color of money,” wrote Parishville resident Katharine MacKay, “The only people in favor of them are people that love money more than anything in the world.”
“We are leaseholders, so to the anti-wind crowd, we’re in it for the money,” wrote Hopkinton resident Frank Potenzano. “They know nothing about us.”
Pease said the issue has done more than divide the community; it split her family.
She no longer speaks to her grandfather, a World War II veteran and major landowner who signed a lease with Avangrid to place two turbines on his land. Eli Sochia could earn as much as $250,000 over the lifetime of the project, a public document shows.
Also caught in the crosshairs is Sochia’s son, Gilbert, a Hopkinton Town board member who must recuse himself from voting on the North Ridge Wind Farm due to his father’s financial interest in the project.
Gilbert Sochia said Hopkinton needs the money. He has watched his town’s budget dwindle during his two decades on the board and doesn’t know how much longer it can survive without a major development like North Ridge.
“This is a deprived area,” he said. “There’s no work up here. If we don’t get the towers, we won’t get any money.”
Located near the Canadian border, St. Lawrence County has lost many of its manufacturing and agricultural jobs over the years. One of its largest employers, Alcoa, would have eliminated nearly 500 of its workers last year had the state not stepped in with financial incentives. The company will revisit its decision in 2019.
But Sochia said he’s sensitive to the concerns of opponents and believes the wind farm could pose some potential problems – the way any industrial development might. He doesn’t think his niece and her group have made a strong case against outright rejection of the project, though.
All they have done, he said, is stir up controversy.
Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation member Lori Witherell parked her car at the top of a ridge in Franklin County, just to the east of St. Lawrence.
“Look,” she said, pointing to the valley below where an army of industrial turbines dotted the lush, green landscape – 138 of them, their blades hypnotically slicing the air.
The structures comprise two different wind farms – Noble Clinton and Noble Chateaugay – constructed in 2008 and 2009.
“It has completely changed the character of this place,” Witherell said. “We don’t want this in our community. This is what we’re trying to prevent.”
Proponents of the wind project accuse the concerned citizens group of NIMBYism and fear-mongering. They also have claimed its members actively lobby against renewable energy.
Group members balk at the accusations.
“We hear people say that we’re making things up, but it’s only the leaseholders who are saying that,” said Witherell, the group’s secretary. “Most people say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this, we wouldn’t have known what was going on without you.’”
Less than 42,000 families live in St. Lawrence County, according to census data. Only 32 of them signed lease agreements with Avangrid. Two of them have multiple agreements.
“We shouldn’t have to live with the effects of these things just because a few people will make money,” said Luke Dailey, another member of the opposition group.
Dailey lives in a small, two-story house powered by solar panels and a backup gas generator. She considers herself an avid environmentalist and scoffs when people call her “anti-wind.”
It’s not wind energy she dislikes, she said; it’s industrial machines thrust upon her community so a few people can profit.
“I support green energy,” Dailey said. “But not like this.”
Many in the Amish community of the Adirondacks also oppose the turbines. Like Dailey, they said they care about the environment. But they harbor deep concerns about how the project will impact their simple lifestyle.
“We like to live in peace as much as possible,” said Levi Zook, “and it will disturb our peace.”
Avangrid’s project calls for several turbines near Zook’s land. The company wanted him to sign an agreement to host transmission lines for the project but he refused. He worries about not only about his peace, but his son with a rare genetic disorder that causes seizures and ear problems.
“What will it do to my child?” Zook said. “I don’t want to have to move because of this.”
Zook purchased 34 acres of land nearly six years ago to farm and raise his family. He liked the view and the fact he could cut his own firewood for cooking and heating his home. He and others in the Amish community use no electricity.
Despite their opposition to the turbines, many Amish families hesitate to speak out. They want what’s best for the entire community – even their leaseholding neighbors.
“I’m strongly opposed to it,” said Moses Yoder. “But I know most of the people who signed up for it, and I told them if the wind project comes, you’re still my friend.”
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