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As the windmill turns: residents doubt the power

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Upstate New York has been boasting about wind-power development the last few years. Wind farms --- clusters of high-tech windmills 200 feet or more tall --- have become tourist and business-booster attractions in Wyoming County and Madison County.

            The Wyoming County wind farm, on one otherwise vacant hilltop in the town of Wethersfield, sports 10 towers armed with European-designed Vestas generators. From miles away you can see the brilliantly white towers, made even more eye-catching by briskly revolving propeller blades.

            Wind power has dazzled many "stakeholders" --- entrepreneurs who make money from developing the installations; farmers and other rural landowners who make $2,000 or more per tower in land-leasing fees; planners and environmentalists who know that clean, renewable energy's time has come.

            But sometimes people feel wind power is like a stake held over their heart.

This is the case today 50 or 60 miles south of Rochester, where the Bristol Hills subtly merge into the Southern Tier.

            Spurred by New York State's new emphasis on wind power and other renewables like solar power and fuel-cells, two companies have targeted a pair of towns --- Italy, Yates County; and Prattsburgh, Steuben County --- for wind-power development. The proposals could add up to a concentration of windmills not seen before in Western and Central New York: as many as 103 towers sprouting from selected ridges and hilltops within a 6,000-acre development zone. (That's equivalent to around one-fourth the city of Rochester's land area.)

            The plans are rooted in state and local financial benefits, as well. In mid-2002, Governor George Pataki and the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority (NYSERDA) announced that $17 million in public funds and other incentives would be available for the private development of five wind farms in Lewis, Chautauqua, Otsego, and Erie counties, as well as Steuben and Yates.

            Altogether, the funds were to subsidize as many as 213 new windmills, each using a 1.5 megawatt turbine. That would mean an addition of more than 300 megawatts in generating capacity to the grid. (Compare Rochester Gas and Electric's Ginna nuclear plant at around 500 megawatts.) NYSERDA figures the state theoretically could produce 5,000 megawatts from wind.

            Tom Hagner is a manager with Ecogen, one the companies looking to build in the Yates-Steuben county area. Ecogen plans to put up 53 windmills, he says, each of them "just short of 400 feet tall." Each supporting tower would stand 260 feet high, he says; the blades account for the remaining height.

            The Ecogen windmills would thus be considerably taller than those in Wethersfield. Each Ecogen machine, using a General Electric turbine, will produce twice as much energy as a Wethersfield unit, according to Hagner.

            Each windmill will require around two acres of land, Hagner says. That's not counting other infrastructure: access roads, transmission corridors, and so forth. "They need to be networked together, plugged into a substation," he says. Topography imposes limits, of course. "You're on the ridge tops," Hagner says.             The company, Hagner says, chose the Italy-Prattsburgh area for its proximity to a major electric-transmission line. It's necessary, he says, to keep the interconnecting power lines as short as possible, and to use each substation efficiently.

            What about the visuals? Windmills are very noticeable. Fifty-three towers (or 103) could dominate a rural landscape --- and for tourist and weekender-oriented towns like Italy and Prattsburgh, a "viewshed" is like money in the bank.

            "That definitely is one of the environmental impacts of wind energy," Hagner concedes. But the impact, he says, must be "balanced" against the negatives of fossil fuel-generated electricity: air emissions, thermal pollution, damage from fuel extraction, the risks of nuclear power, and so forth.

            Erich Bachmeyer is a representative of Global Wind Harvest, the other company involved in Italy and Prattsburgh. He says his company wants to put up 50 windmills at most.

            Bachmeyer, too, is confronting a range of objections. Is there room for compromise? "We feel there's a middle ground," he says. But he charges that "some opponents don't feel there's a middle ground."

Advocates for Prattsburgh, a group formed to fight the windmill plans, remains firmly opposed.

            Member John Servo, a Chili resident who with his family owns nearly 150 acres straddling the Italy-Prattsburgh line, is looking at a possible installation next-door to where he plans to live full-time. He fears that windmills could force "a drop of property values of 20 to 40 percent." Noise from the whirling blades can be a problem, too, he says. Moreover, he fears the particular type of noise could induce headaches and other health effects in people living close to the units. "This is not safe," he says.

            Wind power "makes sense in the desert West" but not around here, says Servo, who works as a consultant to high-tech and energy companies. "I'm a proponent of wind technology in appropriate locations." Nonetheless, he casts doubt on the concept: Windmills, he says, pump out power only when the wind is blowing. Because of this, he says, they don't obviate the need for fossil-fuel or other "back-up" generating capacity.

            Ruth Matilsky, an Advocates member who lives in Prattsburgh most of the year, says a proposed windmill site lies 1,000 feet from her house and 500 feet from her property line. She says she and her family initially had a more positive attitude. Indeed, she says, they "came really close" to signing a lease agreement for their land. Now she feels the project would be out-of-scale for the town. And she cites negatives like noise, intrusive warning lights, and damage to the viewshed.

            Matilsky does admit to a bit of "liberal angst" about joining the opposition. "The way we live is destroying the planet," she says.

            Like many towns in rural New York, Prattsburgh has many absentee landowners and part-time residents. One of the latter is Alice Sokolow, an optometrist and researcher who lives in the Rochester suburbs. Sokolow says some of the proposed wind turbines would be within a mile of her place. She's generally dubious about the project. "Our mountains are not that high," she says. "We're not going to get any benefit... I don't see any positive impact."

            Sokolow feels the companies targeted Prattsburgh because the town has no land controls with teeth. "There are a handful [of towns in the area] that have not gone to comprehensive planning." (Company spokespeople deny they single out towns without planning. They say their decisions are based on technical criteria like wind ratings. A state sanctioned wind-resource map shows some hilltops in the designated zone have high ratings --- but not the highest.)

            "Our town board has totally stonewalled the people who aren't in favor of windmills," says Al Wordingham, a Prattsburgh resident who moved there from Victor several years ago. "None of the out-of-town [landowners] had any idea this project was moving forward," he charges.

            Prattsburgh Supervisor J. Harold McConnell did not return a call for comment. We did reach David Stachnik, a Hammondsport resident who represents Prattsburgh as Steuben county legislator. "This project will generate some dollars" for the area, he says. "If studies can prove that it can actually provide dollars and some jobs... that's good." He adds that people's wishes must be respected, too.

            The Steuben County Industrial Development Agency is "lead agent" for the Prattsburgh project, says IDA executive director Jim Sherron. "We're a reluctant lead agent," he explains. The task fell to the IDA, he says, in part because the town of Prattsburgh has no zoning and thus little authority over such projects. There will need to be public hearings on a "draft scoping" document, he says. The IDA, he says, will hear a presentation by Ecogen officials late this week.

            The IDA can offer a mix of tax incentives, including help with any mortgage tax, Servo says. The IDA, he says, is working only with Ecogen, which has not received state money for the Prattsburgh plan. (Global Winds did receive state funds for its Steuben-Yates project, says a NYSERDA news release from 2002.)

            In any case, Sherron acknowledges some matters that will inevitably be on the table. "There certainly are some environmental issues out there," he says.

Over in Yates County, as well, things are moving along tentatively.

            "At this point, we have not had any formal application," says Steve Isaacs, head of the county IDA. "There is a lot of controversy. I can't speak for the [IDA] board of directors." But he says much will depend on what Italy's town government decides.

            Italy Supervisor Margaret Dunn says her town is poised to take decisive action. On April 24, she says, residents will vote on a proposed six-month moratorium on windmill development. Town government, she says, has "made the decision to move in the direction of a moratorium."

            If such a moratorium is adopted --- as seems likely, considering the public response Dunn has noted --- will it withstand legal challenges by developers?

            "I think that we're pretty protected, [because] we've been working on a comprehensive plan for over a year," Dunn says. Right now the town lacks a zoning law. The concept has been discussed for many years, and a law was proposed six years ago, she says, but it was shot down at the polls. Some residents now regret that, she says. "If we don't get some kind of control, it could just devastate the valley," she says.

            "I'm not totally against windmills," Dunn says. She recalls a recent visit to the Fenner (Madison County) site. "That was pretty much cleared farmland" before construction, she says. But most of the proposed sites in Italy, a heavily forested town, would require significant cutting of trees, she says.

            Some pro-wind-power environmental groups are watching what's happening in towns like Italy and Prattsburgh. They've followed and supported wind-power success stories in Wethersfield and Fenner, as well as wind-centered controversies in Cherry Valley and South Bristol.

            "Wind power is proven --- not just in the United States but in Europe particularly, over a number of years --- to be an effective, reliable source of electric generation," says John Stouffer, Albany-based legislative director of the Sierra Club Atlantic Chapter. The national Sierra Club, he says, is "100 percent" behind the concept. "It generates no emissions," he says. He addresses a central criticism --- that wind power doesn't work because the wind is intermittent. Simply put, he says, that has not been a problem in real-world conditions.

            Environmental groups also have countered objections that windmills can kill large numbers of birds and produce dangerous "ice-throws." The former problem, say some advocates, can be minimized by siting wind farms away from flyways and using towers that discourage perching. The ice problem is real, but there are solutions. For example, the Rutland Herald, in a comprehensive review of a Vermont proposal, cited a state official who acknowledged the problem. He advised that windmills must be kept a safe distance from human activity.

            Stouffer speaks to location, as well. "It's possible," he says, "to site wind turbines inappropriately so they're nuisances, create noise, or damage other environmental features."

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