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After Shell WindEnergy in 2008 contacted local landowners about leasing property on the crest of the Helderbergs for fifty 380-foot wind turbines, the towns involved scrambled to put ordinances in place.
At that time, New Scotland and all four Hilltowns were devoid of zoning related to wind farms.
Berne, Knox, and Rensselaerville followed through with zoning laws; New Scotland did not, and Westerlo never undertook the task.
In 2008, Knox had zoning in place that prohibited industrial-sized wind turbines but allowed small residential windmills.
The late Daniel Driscoll, a long-time member of the Knox Planning Board and a certified sound engineer, lent his expertise to Berne and Rensselaerville as well while those neighboring Hilltowns worked through their ordinances on wind turbines.
Also, Knox was where Helderberg Community Energy was based. In 2006, the grassroots group had placed a 165-foot meteorological tower on Middle Road to measure the characteristics of the wind that blows through the Hilltowns. It was placed there as part of the Helderberg Wind Project, which had planned to put three 1.5-megawatt turbines on Middle Road, away from roads and houses, for community benefit. The tower was taken down in 2010 and the data revealed a wind farm at that location wasn’t feasible.
“We realize that this is kind of a minimal amount of wind we have up here,” Driscoll said at the time. “Given the subsidies that developers can get from the state and federal government, a small wind farm would be an economic viability, but some of our planning board members are concerned that, even though that’s true, those federal and state subsidies might be more efficiently spent some place else that has better wind. In other words, the taxpayer’s not really getting a complete bang for the buck with the subsidies by having it here in Knox.”
Ultimately, the adopted Knox law distinguishes between non-commercial windmills and commercial wind turbines.
The rotating portion of a windmill can be no more than 30 feet in diameter; no taller than 125 feet, including the rotor; and the blades must be at least 40 feet from the ground, according to Knox’s ordinance. They can be rated at no more than 12 kilowatts of electrical power and sale or credit of the excess energy is permitted “only as a secondary use.”
Turbines, meanwhile, “are typically rated at 1.0 megwatts of higher electrical generating power.” They can be up to 475 feet, including the rotor, and blades still need to be at least 40 feet from the ground.
Windmills are allowed anywhere except the land conservation districts as long as they get site plan approval. Turbines are not permitted.
Rensselaerville had adopted a comprehensive plan in March of 2007 that allowed only community-owned wind development. But the new zoning, adopted in accordance with that plan, was challenged in court by Rensselaerville Farmland Protection, a group that took issue with the lot sizes in the agricultural district.
As a result of that case, “the zoning was completely thrown out,” said the town’s attorney at the time.
In December 2008, Rensselaerville passed a wind moratorium while it developed a new law. Resident Noel Abbott, who said he was passionate about wind energy, chaired the committee to draft a new law.
“[Abbott] is the driver, so he’ll get the committee moving and coming up with solutions,” said the Rensselaerville supervisor at the time, Jost Nickelsberg. “The hope is that we can put up something we would own, something that would be a win for the town.”
In the fall of 2010, after a year-and-half of work by the wind-power committee, the town board adopted a local law that bans all industrial wind development in town.
“This is the resolution that ties up the entire process,” Town Attorney Joseph Catalano saidat the time. “Albany County actually recommended approval of the law,” Catalano said of the county’s planning department.
He went on to pass along some prescient advice from the county.
“They also provided some…guidance that cautioned the town boards that, at some point, the federal or state governments might adopt laws that could potentially override this local law, and that the town board should watch out for that, and perhaps anticipate that, or perhaps generate regulations about siting in case this law gets overridden at some point in the future.”
Rensselaerville’s law prohibits commercial wind facilities – those that generate more than 100 kilowatts and generate power for reasons other than immediate onsite consumption – while non-commercial turbines are permitted in all districts with a special-use permit and site plan approval. A non-commercial wind power facility can generate no more than 100 kilowatts and that energy can only be consumed onsite; excess energy can be sold to utility companies.
Berne’s zoning ordinance did not address the building of wind turbines in 2008, according to the supervisor at the time, Kevin Crosier.
“In order for that to be changed, they’d have to change the law, and, in order to change a town’s zoning ordinance, it must match your comprehensive plan, and the town’s plan is silent on wind energy,” said Crosier then.
“The discussion of wind energy needs to take place during a comprehensive review, so the residents will understand the impacts of such projects on their community. That’s why it’s so critical that it’s reviewed in the town’s comprehensive plan. That gives people on both sides the chance to discuss not only wind energy, but also their community as a whole,” Crosier said then.
Before 2008 was out, Berne had adopted a moratorium to temporarily prohibit all wind projects in Berne.
The mountains, Crosier said at the time, define what it is to live in Berne. “I don’t think people want the mountains destroyed so that some multinational corporation can profit,” he said.
The part of Berne that Shell wanted to build turbines in, according to a map representatives showed landowners they hoped to lease from, included the Partridge Run Wildlife Management Area. After Shell pulled out, Rhizome Integrated Energy, based in New York City, was looking at the Hilltowns for a 25-megawatt wind project.
At the time, Berne already had two windmills that residents had put up to power their own homes. The town board decided to look at “small wind” first and then “big wind.”
“Large industrial turbines and community wind would become part of the town’s comprehensive plan, and the planning board would draft up a big wind ordinance,” Crosier said at the time.
The board defined “industrial turbines” as those constructed by larger corporations like Shell, and “community wind” as locally owned projects like Helderberg Community Energy that looked to benefit the town entirely. Helderberg Community Energy eventually concluded that the site it had chosen did not have enough wind to make the project viable.
Berne ultimately adopted a law that distinguishes between residential and industrial wind energy, with separate regulations for each. Residential turbines are allowed for individuals “subject to reasonable conditions that will protect the public health, safety and welfare.”
However, industrial wind-energy facilities are not allowed in any part of town.
The law is meant to regulate siting “should this prohibition be overturned by a court of law or should the Town of Berne be required to allow siting of an industrial wind facility … .”
The law goes on to cite the importance of preserving historic resources, night skies, and viewsheds and even mentions communications towers in New Scotland on the Helderberg escarpment that mar the view.
Robert Stapf, who chaired New Scotland’s planning board in 2008, said then the only applicable ordinance would be a maximum height limit of 45 feet; to top that, a variance would be needed.
New Scotland’s supervisor at the time, Thomas Dolin, said then, “Initially, as far as these commercial windmill farms, we’re exploring the idea of treating them as public utilities … We’re aware that we have to take steps here to make sure the zoning law protects. It’s a top priority in our agenda of items to be done.”
By May 2009, the town was in the process of drafting a law about wind turbines but the town board was split on which lawyer to hire to advise it. Ultimately, Todd Mathes was hired and a public hearing was held that September.
Drawing equally fervent voices from each side of the argument, wind energy was heralded by some as a key component of a renewable energy program, and by others as a dangerous and unsightly scar on the landscape. The hearing on the draft law drew a crowd, largely from neighboring Hilltowns that were also facing potential wind-energy development.
Several people expressed concern over the set-back requirements.
“This is woefully inadequate,” Sean O’Connor of Berne said of the draft before speaking passionately about his family’s experience with what is called flicker effect from a neighbor’s windmill.
As the blades of the wind turbine turn, they block the sun, which creates a flicker where the shadow falls. When his neighbor erected a windmill, O’Connor said, the rooms in his house would pulse with the spinning of the blades.
The Enterprise also reported at the time that, according to maps provided by the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority and AWS Truewind, some of the areas in New Scotland that have the most potential for high energy yields already have communication towers on them. Wind Turbines, NYSSERDA said, can “reflect portions of the electromagnetic radiation in such a way that the reflected wave interferes with the original signal arriving at the receiver.”
The Enterprise also referenced reports on problems caused by “aerodynamic noise” from wind turbines.
New Scotland’s current supervisor, Douglas LaGrange, was a town councilman when the board drafted the wind ordinance that was never codified into law. LaGrange said this month that Pinnacle Road, where turbines had been proposed, “turned out not to be an opportune area for wind,” and the town board didn’t pursue passing a final wind law.
“I don’t know that we wouldn’t be open to discussion and some uniformity in Albany County in general,” LaGrange said of a county-wide wind regulation.
New Scotland’s Comprehensive Plan, adopted in September 2019, mentions wind turbines twice – one goal of the plan is to protect the town’s natural habitats and ecosystems, in particular, animal migratory corridors, which can be achieved by prohibiting lights and high structures, “such as wind turbines and additional transmission towers,” in areas like Thacher State Park.
The plan also has a stated goal of using energy efficiently and providing renewable energy, and one strategy to achieve that goal is to “allow wind turbines on or near commercial and residential structures and sites.”
Discussing the lack of a law governing wind projects, LaGrange drew a parallel with New Scotland’s “sound solar law,” which he said got that way mostly because solar hadn’t been addressed in the zoning code, in which case, the town’s approach is had been: Then it’s not allowed in the zoning code.
Because the town wanted to allow for solar, it had the opportunity to take a reasonable amount of time and examine other solar laws, like NYSERDA’s model law, LaGrange said, and then mold it to apply to New Scotland. “And it’s been pretty solid so far,” he said, the town was able to protect prime-soiled farmland, for example.
To remain consistent with precedence, if the town zoning code is silent on wind turbines, LaGrange said, it would be considered the same way solar farms were prior to July 2017, before the passage of New Scotland’s solar law – not allowed at the moment.
— Sean Mulkerrin contributed views by Douglas LaGrange and notations on mention of wind turbines in New Scotland’s comprehensive plan; Noah Zweifel contributed summaries of some current Hilltown laws.<
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