Planner wants to protect his parents and the town of Guilderland from too-close, towering wind turbines
GUILDERLAND — Town Planner Kenneth Kovalchik is concerned about large-scale wind farms, so much so that he has written an Article 78 memorandum of law – used by citizens to challenge government actions – on behalf of his parents and their neighbors, who are trying to prevent 675-foot turbines being installed on a ridgeline overlooking their 300-acre farm in Otsego County.
As Guilderland works to amplify and strengthen its solar laws, Kovalchik recommends that the town also begin to work on creating a wind ordinance. He wants the town to join forces with other surrounding municipalities – New Scotland and the Hilltowns – to strengthen their voice, as the state gears up to take over the work of approving large-scale renewable-energy projects.
“What happens in Berne or Knox affects Guilderland,” he told the Guilderland Town Board on March 3 at a solar-energy public hearing.
What has given this concern a sense of urgency for Kovalchik is the governor’s proposed Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act — a 30-day amendment to the proposed budget – which would speed the process of approval for large-scale renewable-energy projects and reduce the role of local municipalities to that of a review board.
Because the act is part of the governor’s budget, it “doesn’t go through as rigorous a review,” said Kovalchik on March 3, while explaining his concerns to the town board.
Although Guilderland is currently considering amendments to the portion of its zoning code related to solar energy, the town’s zoning code is silent on wind energy.
Kovalchik believes Guilderland not only needs to think about wind energy and begin to work toward creating a wind ordinance, it also needs to cooperate with other surrounding towns “and have a strong voice,” he told the board.
Where wind developers, a few years ago, were proposing wind turbines that were 350 or 400 feet tall, the height of many proposed wind projects around the country, including in New York State, has risen recently to 650 or 675 feet, Kovalchik told The Enterprise.
“It’s harder to mitigate, if you can mitigate something like that,” he said.
He compared this height to that of the Corning Tower in downtown Albany and showed a photoshopped photo, for emphasis, of a 675-foot turbine beside the 589-foot-tall Corning Tower
“Just think of 30 Corning Towers on the top of the Helderberg escarpment,” he said. “How far do you have to go before you’re not impacted?”
In 2008, Shell WindEnergy proposed installing turbines on the crest of the Helderbergs: 25 in Berne and Rensselaerville and another 25 in New Scotland; all would have been 380 feet tall and at least 500 feet from homes. Knox, which also has acreage on the crest of the Helderbergs, had adopted legislation that would have prohibited such turbines, while the other Hilltowns had not. (See related story.)
What happens in Berne or Knox, said Kovalchik, affects Guilderland, New Scotland, and even eastern Schoharie County.
“We need to start thinking about regional impacts because, in my opinion, this proposal really kills home rule,” Kovalchik told the town board.
At the town board meeting and again this week with The Enterprise, Kovalchik showed a visual simulation of a wind project proposed for the land adjacent to the family farm where he grew up, in Unadilla, in Otsego County. Kovalchik said the simulation was provided to him, when he asked for it, by an engineer working for the wind developer.
The simulation shows his family’s land, with turbines atop the ridgeline of the adjacent property.
Kovalchik said this week that he showed the photo at the town board meeting primarily to demonstrate the intermunicipal effects of these projects. The adjacent ridgeline is actually in another town — Guilford — and even in another county — Chenango – he said. The ridgeline is located a mile-and-a-half from the farm, but is easily visible.
“It’s almost like, if you were in Altamont, and it was built on the Helderbergs,” he said of the proposed windfarm, which would place nine wind turbines, each 675 feet tall, along the ridgeline.
Locally, there have not yet been any wind proposals, and it is easier to adopt an ordinance before any come in, Kovalchik said, “because money always sways opinions.”
Guilderland town officials will draft a letter to the governments of the Hilltowns to see if they might want to work together on an ordinance “that will be strong and protect the municipality,” he said.
Concerns about wind
Kovalchik’s concerns about wind are not just related to the visual, or aesthetic, impact, although that is part of it too, he said.
He is more concerned about what he called “potential health impacts,” which he listed as:
— Infrasound and low-frequency noise:
Wind turbines generate low-frequency wavelengths that can travel miles before being mitigated or dissipated over the natural terrain, Kovalchik told The Enterprise.
He wrote in the Article 78 memorandum: “In general, infrasound from wind turbines has a rhythmic pulsing sound, and the pulsating sound pressure affects the inner ear, although no sound is perceived by the individual.”
He continued in that document, “The pressure waves propagate into the inner ear fluid-filled cavities, and this ‘massage effect’ affects the sensory cells in the inner ear hearing and organs of balance. Some persons are affected by the pulsating sound pressure while others are not affected by it in any significant way. Such sensory stimulation can occur in people with sensory hypersensitivity, causing symptoms such as unsteadiness, dizziness, headache, concentration difficulties, visual disturbances, and more.
“The problems arise even if the noise level is relatively low, since infrasound constantly affects and rhythmically changes the pressure in the inner ear via the sound paths,” he wrote. “The pulsing sound pressure from wind turbines also indirectly activates the autonomic nervous system, causing increased secretion of adrenaline with constant stress effects, risk of panic anxiety, high blood pressure and heart attacks for people with increased sensory sensitivity.”
One paper, “Wind Turbines and Health” – completed in 2019 by researchers from the University of Iowa’s Department of Occupational and Environmental Health as well as its Environmental Health Sciences Research Center and by the director of the Iowa Environmental Council — came to this conclusion: “There is no authoritative evidence that sound from wind turbines represents a risk to human health among neighboring residents. The only causal link that can be identified is that wind turbines may pose an annoyance to some who live near them. However, annoyance is likely influenced by a person’s feelings about the impacts of wind turbines on viewsheds, whether they get an economic benefit from the turbines, whether they have had a say in the siting process, and attitudes about wind power generally.”
An email this week to one of the authors of the Iowa paper was unanswered by press time.
It is important, Kovalchik wrote, to take a hard look at infrasound and noise when determining the proper setbacks from surrounding residences; and
— Shadow flicker:
This is an effect of the sun, when it is low on the horizon, shining through the rotating blades of a wind turbine, casting a rapidly moving shadow. The shadow will be perceived as a “flicker” due to the rotating blades repeatedly casting the shadow.
“Imagine a shadow that’s spinning at a fast rate of speed,” Kovalchik said. These shadows, he said, are known to cause issues for people who have vertigo, autism, or sensory sensitivity.
The only way to mitigate shadow flicker or infrasound, Kovalchik wrote in the Article 78 memorandum, is to require greater setback distances.
A study conducted in 2012 by an independent expert panel for the Massachusetts Department of Environmental Protection and the Massachusetts Department of Public Health found, “There is limited scientific evidence of an association between annoyance from prolonged shadow flicker (exceeding 30 minutes per day) and potential transitory cognitive and physical health effects.” It also found, “Scientific evidence suggests that shadow flicker does not pose a risk for eliciting seizures as a result of photic stimulation.”
Kovalchik also discussed several other issues:
— Property values:
Kovalchik suggested that wind developers should be required to provide property-value guarantees to the surrounding properties. This would mean, he said, that the wind developer would pay the owners of those properties a fee similar to a lease agreement to offset any reduction in their property values.
Studies have shown that the decrease in the value of properties near a large-scale wind project can range from 10 to 40 percent, Kovalchik said.
He added that the cost to the town and the school district might be the largest effect on the community. “Think of not only the surrounding properties but also the town and the school district,” he said. “If someone can grieve their assessment and prove their property value has declined, and then magnify that by large numbers of people, that could have a huge effect on taxes”;
— Bird and bat deaths:
Birdkill is another issue, Kovalchik said. “Particularly in our area: the bald eagles have come back and there are some healthy populations.”
In addition, he said, in winter, a number of bat species, including the Indiana bat and the northern long-eared bat, hibernate in ledges and caves along the escarpment. When the weather becomes warmer, they fly down and nest in trees in the nearby countryside.
“If you have a migratory route from the escarpment to the surrounding farmlands, I’d be worried about batkill,” he said.
Kovalchik suggested taking “ a strong look” at bird habitats in the areas that would be prime for wind development, which he said were western Guilderland, Schoharie, Knox, and Berne.
Asked about Audubon New York’s statement praising various aspects of the Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, Kovalchik said, “Out of the 40 pages of the Act, about three or four are dedicated to an ‘endangered species fund,’ to mitigate. I don’t know what the specifics are. In my opinion, it’s the wrong decision by the Audubon Society. Because you can have a mitigation fund set up, but you’re still going to allow the use.”
The executive director of Audubon New York, Ana Paual Tavares, issued a statement on Feb. 21 that says, in part: “We are glad to see that the Governor’s proposal includes measures to protect threatened and endangered species and the habitat they rely on. Balancing the development of responsibly-sited renewable energy with measures that protect vulnerable birds and their habitat will ensure we protect our wildlife now as we reach toward a renewable future.”
The act includes a provision about the need to establish “additional mechanisms to facilitate the achievement of a net conservation benefit to endangered or threatened species which may be impacted by the construction or operation of major renewable energy facilities.”
An applicant may need to pay “a specified amount in lieu of physical mitigation,” to be placed into an “endangered species mitigation fund.”
“They’re putting a provision in there to help protect bird species,” said Kovalchik of the act, “but where is the mitigation to protect humans, like a property-value guarantee?”; and
The current technology now is limited in terms of recycling the rotors, or blades, Kovalchik told The Enterprise.
The steel structure has value and can be recycled, but the rotors, which can be up to 300 feet long, are fiberglass and are cut in half or into thirds and buried in landfills. “From day one, I think you have to have a designated landfill where that will go,” he said.
Local landfills have limited capacity intended mainly for municipal trash and may not be prepared to accept, eventually, hundreds of blades, Kovalchik wrote in the Article 78.
He would like to “look at ways to require rotors to be recycled,” he told The Enterprise.
The Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act is a 30-day budget amendment the governor has proposed to aid in the goal of the statewide electrical demand system generate zero emissions by 2040.
The act would create an Office of Renewable Energy Siting to make it easier for large-scale renewable energy projects to be approved and built across the state.
Projects that have already begun to navigate the current permitting process will be able to opt in to the new process and would be treated with an “expedited permitting process” that takes into account the matters and issues already presented in “alternate permitting proceedings.”
Within 60 days of deeming an application complete, the new state office would open a public-comment period, during which time the municipality would have an opportunity to comment on “whether the proposed facility is designed to operate in compliance with applicable local laws and regulations, if any, concerning the environment, public health and safety.”
However, the act states, “General expressions of disagreement with or general opposition to the siting, design, construction and/or operation of a major renewable energy facility during the public comment period shall not be considered to be substantive or significant for purposes of this section.”
If any substantive issues were to be raised, the department would “promptly fix a date for hearing to hear arguments and consider evidence.”
The new office would aim to ensure that complete applications are acted upon within one year, with some projects located on former commercial and industrial sites being reviewed within six months.
“This is inserted as part of the budget, so it’s not going to go through your typical review process,” Kovalchik told the town board of the act on March 3.
He added, “Cuomo’s plan reduces the local government’s role to a review board.”
Kovalchik family’s Article 78
High Bridge Wind LLC, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Calpine Corporation, proposes a facility of up to 100.8 megawatts to be located on lands in the town of Guilford in Chenango County.
The Article 78 is challenging the town of Guilford and the county of Chenango.
A telephone call this week to Calpine was not returned. An email and voicemail to the Guilford supervisor were not answered by press time; the town’s offices were closed, but the website said that officials were attempting to respond to queries.
Nine of the project’s up to 30 turbines would be located along a ridgeline that overlooks the Kovalchik family farm and the Unadilla River, which is the county boundary line.
Kovalchik’s parents, who are in their mid-80s and on a fixed income, have owned the farm since 1969. They lease the land to a dairy farmer who lives on the property and has about 40 to 50 cows; they depend on his lease payments to supplement their income, Kovalchik writes in the Article 78 memorandum.
One of the Kovalchiks’ concerns is for the effect of infrasound on the health of cattle. “Studies have shown,” the memorandum states, “infrasound can affect animals, particularly cows, showing evidence of miscarriages and stillbirths.”
It continues, “The concern is that if the adverse impacts of infrasound affect the dairy cows it may cause a financial burden to the farmer of losing cows and loss of milk production, and the potential to leave the farm altogether.”
Kovalchik wrote the memorandum on behalf of the petitioners — his parents and three of their neighbors.
One of the plaintiffs, Jessica Gaumbach, states in the Article 78 documents that she has an autistic son who already receives special accommodations in their home due to noise and light sensitivity; she is extremely concerned about health impacts to her son related to shadow flicker and noise, especially considering the nearest turbine would be about 1,600 feet from her home.
Article 78 documents are often written by attorneys, Kovalchik told The Enterprise, but that is not a requirement when petitioners are representing themselves, as in this case.
He began paying attention to the project in spring of 2019, he said, when his parents expressed concern about where the turbines would be located, and eventually became convinced, as a professional planner, that the Guilford town board had violated regulations set up by the State Environmental Quality Review Act, by New York State Town Law, and by Guilford’s local laws.
“As an heir to the farm, I have a vested financial interest in protecting the property value against any diminution of value caused by wind farms … and a vested interest to protect the health and safety of current and future family members that may live there,” Kovalchik told The Enterprise.
Separately, the Chautauqua County Board of Health has recommended a minimum of a one-and-a-half mile setback from industrial wind projects to residential homes, primarily due to impacts of infrasound, Kovalchik said.
The turbines now proposed for the ridgeline near the Kovalchik family’s farm are a mile-and-a-half away, and as close as 1,600 feet from other plaintiffs. Additional setbacks along the ridgeline would help mitigate visual impacts to residents in the adjoining town of Unadilla and in the Unadilla River Valley, Kovalchik told The Enterprise.
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