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Windmill foes take control in Richfield

RICHFIELD – What a difference not even a decade makes.

In 2012, when plans for the six-turbine, 18.45-megawatt Monticello Hills Wind Farm surfaced for the Town of Richfield, neighbors there viewed the project “as a threat to the west end of town,” said Dan Sullivan.

However, “people in the village thought it was the best idea in the world – to get tax relief,” Sullivan said, and Village of Richfield Springs’ residents controlled the town’s Planning and Town boards.

Seven years later, neighbors who formed “Protect Richfield” in the face of the threat to their rural tranquility have turned that around.

In mid-April, perhaps mid-May, a Town Board controlled by the anti-windmill bloc is poised to approve what former Town Supervisor Nick Palevsky and other people interviewed see as a restrictive code that promotes farming, single-family homes and “agri-tourism,” and prohibits windmills of the kind Monticello Hills proposed, and limits business generally.

The code’s fate it being decided by:

If the zoning ordinance were to be adopted, appeals of its provisions would go to the Zoning Board of Appeals, where Tim Cantwell, Carol Frigault’s brother, is chairman.

In short, windmills foes – vulnerable six years ago – now control the Zoning Commission, the Planning Board, the Town Board and the Zoning Board of Appeals, the whole apparatus of Richfield town government.

And, “industrial wind is not an allowed use,” said Larry Frigault, adding, “I think (the Zoning Commission) has done a really good job. I’ve read the ordinance and I like it.”

Cynthia Andela, president of Andela Products, the glass-recycling company, said the zoning code was put together by “people with an agenda.”  “The plan was written to prohibit windmills, to prohibit business, and to prohibit businesses on Route 20,” she said.

Palevsky and even Sullivan and Larry Frigault agreed that the anti-wind group has the upper hand, although Sullivan, a retired teacher from Rockland County and Otsego 2000 board member, said “there was no grand design.” Rather, people motivated to oppose Monticello Hills were also motivated to get involved in town government, he said.

He likened the situation to what happened in Meredith, Delaware County, captured in the movie “Windfall,” where turbine opponents ousted a longtime supervisor and took over the Town Board. There’s a link to the “Windfall” trailer on www.protectrichfield.com, the opponents’ website.

Larry Frigault, proprietor of a New Hartford insurance agency, concurred with Sullivan. Energized, he ran twice for Town Board, losing the first time.  Now he can say of the pending zoning code, “Industrial wind is not an allowed use.”

One potential hurdle that remains is the state’s Town Law 265, which can require a 4-1 super-majority for Town Board approval.  To force that, owners of 20 percent of the land in the Town of Richfield must sign a petition.

Palevsky said he has circulated petitions and has the necessary signatures, (although it is unclear whether he should have waited until the zoning code is actually approved.)  “I have not submitted it,” he said, “but I have in hand something like 25 percent of land included in the zoning change.”

Sullivan was skeptical, and said he works closely with county Planning Director Karen Sullivan (not related), and she’s assured him the law won’t apply in this case.  Asked about it, she said, “I’m not right now ready to talk through that,” but she did e-mail a copy of Town Law 265, highlighting Page 52, the relevant passage.

Another moving part:  With Palumbo retiring, petitions to succeed him are due April 1-4 at the county Board of Elections at The Meadows, Town of Middlefield.

Palevsky, the former supervisor, said he’s planning to run again.  Also circulating petitions is the Rev. David Simonds, pastor of Touchpoint Fellowship Church, who’s been going door to door with petitions, telling prospective voters he hoped to bring the community together. Other candidates may still surface.

The chain of events now reaching a peak began in the summer 2015, when Otsego Now obtained a $200,000 grant to hired Elan Planning, Saratoga Springs, to created an updated Comprehensive Master Plan for the town and Village of Richfield Springs.

By that time, “Protect Richfield” was already in court seeking to block the Monticello Hills turbines.

At the outset, Sullivan said, Elan planners – principal Lisa Nagle and a staff planner – advised 15 people involved in the town-village effort to begin working on zoning to expedite eventual outcomes.

So when the Comp Plan update was issued, a zoning code was unveiled the following week, which avoided public input, Palevsky said.  “Most of the law remains entirely in the dark as to its origin,” he said, and no town-wide survey was done.

Sullivan and his allies, however, say, at Elan’s recommendation, two well-attended “charrettes” – gatherings designed to focus public inputs – were held.

The process culminated Tuesday, March 12, when the Zoning Commission convened a public hearing in the high school cafeteria, which Palevsky said was three-quarters filled, adding, “Everyone who spoke in favor the law was one of the people on the lawsuit against the windmills.”

People who spoke against the plan were concerned it will limit business, said Palumbo, the town supervisor.  “That’s the issue: 85-90 percent of the entire map is home-based business only,” he said.  “You can’t have a convenience store on Route 20 heading toward Richfield Springs.”

However, last Friday, March 15, Andela said, she met with Sullivan, and he agreed to several key changes.

For one, in the “Route 20 overlay” zone that would limit development to 500 feet on each side of the center line.  Sullivan agreed to widen that to 1,000 feet, although Andela said she isn’t sure that’s enough.

Two, in “home businesses,” the only enterprises allowed within the ag zones that comprise most of the zoning map and include such enterprises as contractors. The proposed code allowed no more than three employees, but  Sullivan agreed to remove the limit altogether, Andela said.

She would still like to see the business zone expanded; the code limits it to a small area around the village that can be served by municipal water and sewer.  And she would like to see room for business activity on the east side of Canadarago Lake – at one point, Otsego Now had taken out an option for a commerce park on Federal Hill, next to a NYSEG substation.

While the action now moves to the Town Board, the question that started the resulting ferment is still unanswered: on May 21, 2015, the Appellate Division if  state Supreme Court reversed a lower court, affirming a town Planning Board special-use permit and allowing the project to go forward.

And, Monticello Hill’s Manager Patrick Doyle – the company is affiliated with Maple Hill Wind, which erected 195 windmills outside Lowville on the Tug Hill plateau – said 11 neighbors of the projects signed documents of support, as did another 10 landowners in the neighborhood.

A Siena Poll conducted for Monticello Hill’s also found a sizeable majority of town and village residents support the project, he said.

Asked about the future, Doyle said, “Good projects never die.”