LYNDONVILLE: A community divided – opposing protests, foul language, heckling outside of forum.
In the hour leading up to Apex Clean Energy’s community forum Oct. 4 , two groups had gathered in the parking lot at Lyndonville’s L.A. Webber Middle-High School.
One group stood staunchly in favor of Apex’s proposed Lighthouse Wind energy project and the other stood vehemently opposed.
The opposing rallies offered perhaps the clearest image of how the proposed, 47-turbine wind farm has divided residents in the towns of Somerset and Yates.
As in past public gatherings related to Lighthouse Wind, some protesters appeared angered. Some yelled expletives at the rallies. Some made snide remarks, both at the rallies and the forum itself. And some attendees laughed mockingly when Apex briefly experienced problems with its public address system.
Neighbors on either side of the debate lamented the division and bitterness in their small, tight-knit communities (which each have just over 2,500 residents, about on-tenth of the population of the city of Lockport).
But, unsurprisingly, they blame different culprits for fomenting the division.
Wind project opponents peg the blame on Apex, highlighting its status as an outsider (the company is based in Charlottesville, Virginia) and suggesting it has bankrolled most of its supporters.
In a statement ahead of the Tuesday forum, Somerset Supervisor Daniel Engert called on the state Public Service Commission, which has authority over large-scale energy projects, to “see firsthand the depth of division caused by Apex’s divisive, dismissive and unethical behavior.”
Engert added that surveys show most residents are against the project, and he claimed its supporters either have signed leases with Apex or do not reside in the lakeside towns at all.
“Almost all, if not all, of Apex’s supporters are leaseholders who want to profit off the project or people who live outside our community,” he said.
Several project opponents at the forum expressed sympathy for the landowners who signed leases to have wind turbines sited on their property.
“I understand where farmers would need the subsidies for their land, if farming isn’t going well with them. But on the other hand, it’s a small number of people,” said Gail Upton.
Some suggested the leaseholders were getting duped by Apex.
“I don’t think farmers who have signed contracts necessarily know what they’re in for, based on what’s happened to other communities,” said Erik Sinkora. “They’re going to be locked into these 30-year contracts. If it goes forward, hopefully it’ll be everything they said it would be.”
“People who are in favor of the windmills are not listening to what has been presented at town board meetings,” said Richard Hellert.
But project supporters say opponents have abandoned civility in their fight against Apex.
Susan and Harvey Campbell of Lyndonville say they have been subjected to numerous verbal attacks, both in person and online, from opponents.
“I’ve spent a lot of time with people in Apex. None of them are vitriolic, angry, shoving down, calling people names,” Susan Campbell said. “The people I work with who are supporters are not that way. The only ones who are that way are the opposition. So in my view, they’re the ones tearing the community apart.”
Harvey Campbell said some opponents have lobbed personal insults, including a misogynistic slur, at his wife.
“It’s just ridiculous,” he said. “You go to a town board meeting, and every time you stand up to talk someone is making a wise-ass remark in the back.”
Harvey Campbell also pushed back against opponents’ claims, saying he owns too little land to be a lease-holder and that Yates Town Board meetings are often packed with Somerset residents.
The two sides frequently clash with opposing studies and reports. Opponents say wind turbines wreak havoc for migratory birds, including the massive Snowy Owl and iconic Bald Eagle. Supporters say each turbine kills only about two to five birds per year – a fraction of the fatalities from the average outdoor cat.
Opponents say the turbines generate frequent shadow flicker and loud background noise. Supporters cite Apex figures indicating that non-leaseholders would be exposed to maximum sound levels of about 45 decibels – similar to the hum of an HVAC system.
They argue about whether turbines hurt property values.
But to those on both sides of the issue, the turbines seem to be about more than the view of the horizon or impacts on wildlife – they’re about the future of their community.
Opponents view the project as a threat to two pillars of their community: nature tourism, particularly fishing, and lakeside cottages.
Hellert, who owns Ontario Shores Realty, said one client pulled out of purchasing a lakeside home after learning wind turbines may someday stand on the horizon.
“It’s a direct relationship to what’s going to happen to the market here,” Hellert said. “The company doesn’t see this. … They’re not concerned about the local people.”
For the Campbells, the threat is even more existential. Susan Campbell started a local chapter of Mothers Out Front, a group that seeks to combat climate change. Even though opponents say they support renewable energy, Susan Campbell believes that initiatives like Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s Clean Energy Mandate are unattainable without wind turbines.
“If we do not stop our carbon output, the world is doomed,” she said.
Despite the disagreements, some forum attendees said it’s a shame the project has left two small towns so deeply divided.
“It’s sad,” Upton said. “It’s just very sad.”