Apex Clean Energy frequently cites the Town of Somerset residents who support the company’s plans to erect up to 70 wind turbines in the rural, lakeside community. But those supporters were nowhere to be found at a public hearing Wednesday over proposed zoning laws that would amount to a town-wide ban on large wind energy systems.
Dozens of area residents spoke at the hearing before a packed audience for the Somerset Town Board meeting – not one in favor of the project.
Most raised concerns about the impact that dozens of 600-plus-foot-tall wind turbines would have on the character of the rural farm town.
“These monster wind turbines have no place in our community,” said Jim Hoffman. “We don’t need them at all. And I think our citizens through the years have expressed that.”
Several speakers said they had moved to Somerset to escape the sights and sounds of industry in favor of a more natural setting.
“If I wanted to live in an industrial factory zone, I would have moved to downtown Niagara Falls or downtown Buffalo,” said Cathi Orr.
Betty Wolanyk said she enjoys stargazing and worries the blinking lights on the turbines would sully the night sky.
“I like going out at night and looking at the stars,” Wolanyk said. “And I know there are a lot of people who come to this area just for that purpose, and (these proposed local laws) would help prevent that from being disturbed.”
Wolanyk, like many other speakers, also raised concern about birds striking the turbines’ potential impact on birds and called for a five-mile setback from Lake Ontario for that reason.
Many speakers simply commended the Somerset Town Board for the proposed local laws, which would ban all wind turbines over 200 feet and also severely restrict where turbines could be located.
Under the proposals, turbines could only be placed in an industrial zone, of which the town has few.
They also could not be placed within 1 mile of any village, hamlet, school, church, cemetery or historic site, or within 3 miles of the Lake Ontario shoreline or any planned or existing public park. Additional restrictions bar large turbines from being placed within one-half mile – or a distance of six times the turbine’s height, whichever is greater – of any residence, structure, public road or property line.
That, by design, leaves virtually no space in the 37-square-mile town in which industrial wind turbines could legally be developed.
Apex representative Taylor Quarles said the setbacks “lack appropriate justification and scientific rigor,” and amount to an outright ban on wind energy.
“The laws proposed tonight go well beyond reasonable or justified, and carry the apparent intent to block area landowners from ever having the opportunity to participate in any wind project,” Quarles said. “This significant restriction of landowner’s property rights is seen not only in many discrete sections of the proposed laws, but also when considering them in conjunction, as several of the sections are heavily duplicative.”
Quarles also said more than 20 wind energy projects operate around the state, and that they have been well-received and supported, with some communities advocating for more turbines. He chalked the resistance up to “certain” residents and the town board.
“The proposed changes before the board tonight seem to be borne out of a very vocal desire of certain residents of the town that no wind energy project ever be allowed to be built,” he said.
One Apex supporter, who did not attend the public hearing, criticized the proposed zoning laws for restricting how she and her family can use their land.
“In our town, we are a right to farm community. … And when there’s a clean energy project that comes along that’s not going to impact the streams and the ground and the air, we feel that we should have the right to install turbines on our property,” said Susan Atwater, a dairy farm owner who’s expressed interest in siting turbines on her land.
“Where does the community telling me what I’ve got to do with my business end?” she added.
Following the public hearing, the town board made two amendments to the proposed zoning laws regarding noise. One amendment would increase the setback from neighbors should the turbines increase noise above six decibels at a residence. The other would create models to determine noise level limits.
The town board will hold public hearings on those amendments at its Jan. 29 meeting, after which the board could vote to adopt the laws.
But the laws may not stop Apex’s plans.
Article 10 of the New York State Public Service Law puts an appointed board in charge of siting review/permitting of major (25 mW or more) electric generating facilities. The siting board consists of five members of the governor’s administration and two local representatives of the area where a project is proposed.
The siting board is required to consider local laws, but could choose to waive them if they would prohibit the project.
Town Supervisor Dan Engert said the hearing clearly affirmed that most town residents are against the project.
“I think that the public hearing speaks for itself. These are the types of comments I’ve received over the past four years in email form, in phone calls, in people stopping at the office,” Engert said.
Engert added it was equally telling that Quarles was the only one to voice support for Apex’s proposal.
“I continually read comments by Taylor Quarles indicating that there’s tremendous support in the community, yet there’s no evidence of any support in the community,” Engert said. “Nary any residents stood up and spoke up today at the public hearing today. Where Mr. Quarles finds this substantial amount of community support is in his imagination, as far as I’m concerned.”