Three years ago, John B. Rhodes, the chairman of the New York Public Service Commission, insisted that his state’s renewable-energy permitting process was not stacked against rural communities. During a 2017 meeting of the Independent Power Producers of New York in Saratoga Springs, Rhodes declared that the state’s siting procedure is “not a stacked process and no, not under this governor are we going to force people in a police-state mode to do anything.”
Contrast Rhodes’ 2017 statement with what happened earlier this month. On June 3, the New York State Siting Board – with Rhodes serving as the chairman – voted unanimously to allow Chicago-based Invenergy to build the 340-megawatt Alle-Catt wind project in western New York. The Siting Board did so despite objections from the towns of Freedom and Farmersville, both of which have been fighting the project for months. The wind project will include 117 turbines each standing approximately 600 feet high, and will sprawl across 30,000 acres in Allegany, Cattaraugus, and Wyoming counties. If built, it will be the largest wind project in New York and the largest one in the northeastern United States.
The ruling matters for several reasons. First among them: it provides another example of how renewable-energy projects are being forced onto low-income communities. According to Census Bureau data, Allegany and Cattaraugus are among the poorest counties in New York. Of the 62 counties in New York, the two rank 59th and 58th respectively, in median household income. In Allegany County, the median household income is $47,033. In Cattaraugus County, it is $47,240. For comparison, the New York median household income is $65,323. (Wyoming County ranks 24th in median household income).
Second, it demonstrates, yet again, that increasing numbers of rural communities like Freedom and Farmersville do not want large-scale renewable projects built on top of them. Over the past few years, rural residents from Vermont to Hawaii have been pushing back against the encroachment of large-scale renewable-energy projects and high-voltage transmission lines. These land-use conflicts are further evidence of the vacant-land myth – the mistaken notion that there’s plenty of unused land in rural locales that’s ready and waiting to be covered with solar projects, wind turbines, and high-voltage transmissions lines. The truth is far different. All over the country, rural communities are fighting back against the encroachment of big renewable energy projects.
Few states provide a better example of the rural backlash than New York. Over the past six years, dozens of New York communities have passed measures designed to limit or stop wind energy development. Rural opposition to large-renewable projects has been so strong that earlier this year, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo added a provision, known as Article 23, to the state budget that effectively strips local communities of their ability to stop big renewable-energy projects from being built in their jurisdictions. In response, several communities, including Cambria, Yates, and Somerset, passed resolutions declaring themselves “sanctuary towns” against the encroachment of large-scale renewable projects. Niagara and Orleans counties passed resolutions opposing Article 23.
Opposition to the Alle-Catt project has been stout, particularly in Freedom and Farmersville. Last November, opponents of the Alle-Catt project won control of the town boards in Freedom and Farmersville, and those boards have passed measures aimed at fending off the giant wind project. In February, a subsidiary of Invenergy sued the Freedom Town Board after it voted to invalidate a local wind law.
Finally, the Siting Board’s June 3 vote shows that New York regulators are happy to ignore the rights of local communities and landowners if it helps build more renewable-energy capacity. The June 3 vote marks the first time the Article 23 process has been used to strip local communities of their zoning authority. Stripping zoning authority from small towns marks a turning point in the battle over renewable energy development in New York, a state that has some of America’s most ambitious renewable targets. Last year, the state passed a law requiring utilities to be getting 70 percent of the electricity they sell from renewables by 2030 and to be selling 100 percent “clean” electricity a decade later. To meet those goals, the state may have to force even more large renewable projects on towns that don’t want them.
According to a June 3 article about the Siting Board’s decision that was written by Rick Miller of the Olean Times Herald, Rhodes declared that the approval of the huge wind project will “help reduce our dependence on fossil fuels” and it “demonstrates that renewable energy works in New York and helps move us toward a clean energy future.”
Miller’s article also quoted Farmersville Supervisor Francis “Pete” Lounsbury, who said the Siting Board’s decision was “a severe injustice.” Lounsbury also called the wind project a “disgusting blight” that was being forced on the region.
A few days after the Siting Board’s vote, I talked with Stephanie Milks, a resident of Freedom. She’s the former president of Freedom United, a local group that has been fighting the Alle-Catt project for years. One of the turbines in the project is slated to be built about 3,500 feet west of the home that she shares with her husband and two children. She said Invenergy, which is one of the biggest wind developers in the United States, wants to put wind turbines in Cattaraugus County because it is among the poorest in New York. “We have basically been taken advantage of,” she said.
Gary Abraham, a Great Valley-based lawyer, told me via email that he will be filing a petition for rehearing to the Siting Board by July 3 and that a lawsuit “will likely follow” depending on the board’s response. Abraham represents Freedom United and several other groups including the Old Order Amish of Farmersville. Also known as the Schwartzentruber, the group is among the most conservative Amish sects in the country.
Two other lawyers, Ginger Schröder and Ben Wisniewski – who represent the towns of Franklinville, Machias, and Yorkshire; and Freedom and Farmersville, respectively – will also be involved in the petition for rehearing. It’s worth noting that in some of those towns, median household incomes are even lower than the county averages. Franklinville, Machias, and Yorkshire are all in Cattaraugus County. In Franklinville, the median household income is $44,950. In Yorkshire, the median household income is $39,750. In Machias, it is $43,125.
Abraham said the Siting Board’s decision was “drafted in haste, and failed to consider the full record.” He said the board made several errors in approving the Alle-Catt project including matters involving noise and possible emissions reductions. He also said the Siting Board ignored local laws passed by the towns of Farmersville and Freedom that limit the height of wind turbines to 450 feet.
The fight over Alle-Catt shows how extreme New York’s energy politics have become under Cuomo. Over the past few years, the state’s regulators have outlawed hydraulic fracturing (and therefore, essentially all drilling for oil and natural gas) and have repeatedly blocked pipelines aimed at bringing more natural gas to the state. Cuomo’s appointees are now in “police-state mode” and is stripping small towns of their zoning authority because they stand in the way of adding more wind-energy capacity.
Freedom and other low-income towns in rural New York are fighting to be free of Big Wind. Under Cuomo, those towns had better be prepared for a long fight.