County lawmakers moved to provide extra financial aid for small towns struggling against a controversial wind turbine project calling it a matter of public health and quality of life.
“These turbines are going to stick out like a sore thumb,” declared Niagara County Legislator John Syracuse who represents the Town of Somerset. “The shock of a 600 foot spinning turbine in our pristine farming community, flat community, it could be quite obnoxious.”
Syracuse celebrated the vote by the Niagara County legislature to provide $15,000 from the county’s contingency fund for Somerset in the town’s struggle to derail the proposed Lighthouse Wind project by developer Apex Clean Energy.
The Lighthouse Wind project called for the construction of about 70 wind turbine towers, anticipated to be about 600 feet tall, on farmland in Somerset and the adjacent town of Yates.
The project promises tens of thousands of dollars a year in rent payments for property owners who host the towers and millions annually in PILOT payments (payments in lieu of taxes) for their communities.
Property owners who signed leases for the towers expressed support for the plan but town leaders say repeated polls show opposition to the project running around 70% in the affected communities.
“I see our whole vista changing if they’re allowed to go in there,” exclaimed Pam Atwater, a property owner and the president of the community group Save Ontario Shores which arose in opposition to the Lighthouse project.
No stranger to green energy, Atwater installed solar panels on the roof of her barn and a geothermal system under her lawn. But she cringed at the prospect of seeing 600 foot structures towering over the area’s fields, homes, trees and even the tallest of local silos. And of course hearing their pulsating hum. “I have heard turbines, industrial wind turbines, working and they are not quiet,” she said.
By July, the legal fight against the project had cost the Town of Somerset $260,000 in legal fees and expenses.
Syracuse called the $15,000 contribution to the cause, approved by the county, “peanuts” but admitted it was the most he could get allocated at the time.
He pointed with pride to the legislature’s unanimous vote on June 19 to allocate the money, collected from taxpayers countywide.
Syracuse compared the issue to the county’s biannual allocation of $50,000 for the Town of Lewiston on the western edge of the county to support its legal fight against the expansion of the CWM hazardous waste landfill.
“Health concerns are a priority and it was unanimous when we supported legal fees to protect the town’s residents over in Lewiston,” he said. “It makes me feel proud that the men and women of the legislature are supporting what’s going on in our neck of the woods too.”
Syracuse further insisted that it was not excessive to put a proposed wind turbine project in the same category as a hazardous dump.
“Toxic waste landfill, toxic dump,” he said, “we have a history here in Niagara County of some bad industrial sites so that’s important in its own right.”
Apex Clean Energy expressed frustration over the vote.
“We were puzzled the Niagara County Legislature unanimously took a position against renewable energy and the economic benefits it can bring,” said Cat Mosley, Lighthouse Wind Public Affairs Manager.
Company representatives met with community residents in early July and sought to reassure them.
“We did learn that most of the concerns raised about the project were based on misinformation,” stated Paul Williamson, Lighthouse Wind senior development manager, “and we believe the communities will have a positive attitude when considering factual information about the project.”
Local leaders repeatedly said they faced an unfair obstacle in expressing the voters will in a provision of the New York Public Services law known as “Article 10” which gives an appointed siting board the final say on the placement of large energy projects.
Under Article 10, “the board may elect not to apply… any local ordinance, law, resolution or other action… if it finds that, as applied to the proposed facility, such is unreasonably burdensome,” effectively overriding any local codes or zoning restrictions that could impair the construction of wind turbine towers such as height limits or minimum distances from property lines.
“There is enough distrust of downstate as to their controlling efforts in western New York,” explained Syracuse. “With this new Article 10 process, it essentially removes local say, local voice, and local opposition to projects that would come into our area. So It’s quite stressful.”
With continued support for local communities resisting Lighthouse, Syracuse said he hoped to dissuade Apex Energy from pressing the issue by making it too much trouble to pursue.
“We are dealing with huge conglomerate companies. They’ve got millions on the back end,” he said. “Hopefully, [we are] mitigating their return on their investment to point where they’ll recognize: ‘You know what? This isn’t economically feasible Any longer.’”
Apex Clean Energy predicted it would release its final proposed configuration for the wind farm by early fall and then submit its formal application for the project by the end of the year.