On Thursday, Dec. 17, the town board of Enfield held a notably well-attended meeting regarding Black Oak Wind Farm LLC’s plans to construct seven energy-producing wind turbines on Black Oak Road in the town. The community discussion was open to the public, overseen by the town board, and mediated by Jeff Shepardson from the Community Dispute Resolution Center. Marguerite Wells, the sole employee of Black Oak Wind Farm (BOWF), was in attendance to represent the company. A number of consultants hired by the town and BOWF were present, including an attorney specializing in wind issues, a General Electric representative who answered questions pertaining to the specific model of turbine the project would be using, and a specialist in sound level research.
Wells, also vice president of the BOWF board of managers, bought out the project in January 2012 from developer John Rancich who initiated it in 2006 under the name Enfield Energy. BOWF is a publicly shared company advised by a volunteer board and owned by 125 local investors, 100 of whom are from Tompkins County.
Proponents of the wind farm, including professors, county residents, BOWF investors, and green energy supporters, argued for its renewable energy benefits during a time when sustainable energy is a pressing global issue. They touted the community benefits of a locally owned wind farm in which residents could share the profits. Wells mentioned that Cornell University would be purchasing the energy generated, which would be available to the entire community that our energy grid (from Montour Falls to Ithaca) serves.
Opponents of the wind farm cited safety risks as a main concern. One said setbacks—the distance from a wind turbine to both property boundaries and residences—“are necessary to protect citizens from many dangers, including collapsing towers, flying debris from blade failures that present a potential hazard to the public a significant distance away from each turbine, and potential fires due to sparks from towers that catch on fire.”
Many spoke of the town’s lower setback requirements compared to the Tompkins County Planning Department’s recommendations from November 2008, the turbine’s manufacturer (General Electric) recommendations, and those of New York State Energy Research & Development Authority (NYSERDA). Jude Lemke, an attorney and resident on Connecticut Hill Road, said that “most recommendations for setbacks are 1,500 feet and up from residences. The town board originally adopted setbacks in accordance with county recommendations, but then a change in the town board occurred, and this whole new town board repealed the old law and put in a new one with lower standards for setbacks.”
Wells said that properties in Enfield are vast and expansive, and most of the property is a “totally uninhabited area.” She went on to say, “If you were trying to put a wind turbine anywhere in upstate New York, there’s no place that’s 1,500 feet from property lines. In Europe there aren’t setbacks that far, and in a lot of places in the United States. It’s just not that dangerous. People are just not dying every day from these things.”
Challengers also introduced sound level concerns, again citing the county’s recommendations of a maximum of 50-55 decibels, whereas the local wind law allows a maximum of 60 unweighted decibels.
Jim Dennis, Tompkins County legislator for part of Enfield, said in an interview that the county’s 2008 recommendations were “simply suggestions, and since the project passed a thorough State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process exactly the way they were supposed to,” the wind farm does not present any safety or health hazards. He said that a town is not obligated to pass a development project exactly as the county planning department recommends it.
BOWF has been contacting Enfield residents who live in the area surrounding the proposed turbine construction sites through a “Good Neighbor Agreement” (GNA), another hot button at the meeting. Wells explained the GNA was a courteous effort by BOWF to reach out to the Enfield community, and stated that residents misconstrued its purpose. Some residents complained it was a “binding contract,” and believed it imposed a “gag order,” (Wells said no such gag order was part of the GNA). The GNA offers $500 per year to each of these households that BOWF has offered the agreement to, and the BOWF website says it is “is totally voluntary on our part and on yours.”
Another issue of contention was real estate value and tax revenue. The owners of the properties to which the turbines would be close said that their property value would decrease significantly, and they would not be able to sell their property for the amount they bought it for. Others said that since the property taxes from those areas in Enfield with turbines would go down, other areas in the town would go up. Wells said that Black Oak Wind Farm is in a payment in lieu of taxes (PILOT) program whereby they will pay $133,000 per year, to be shared among the town, the school district, and the county.
Melynda and Rob Tesori Jr., who live at 570 Black Oak Road, spoke a number of times at the meeting, expressing concerns that the distance of one proposed turbine from their property line is under the town’s legal minimum setback. The Tesoris are apprehensive about the potential construction, in part because they have plans to give their current house to their children and build another house on their property, where they hope to retire. With a wind turbine close to their property line, building an additional house would pose problems because they won’t be able to find a safe distance from the turbine to build within the property they own. The couple said they appreciated the meeting because of the questions that were brought up, especially for those in the community who weren’t aware of these issues.
Many concerns centered on proposed changes to the project. Residents said since the Final Environmental Impact Statement, approved in November 2014, was pertaining to a project that proposed seven 1.7 megawatt wind turbines each at a height of 475 feet from the ground to the tip of the blade, another impact study is required now that the turbines have increased both in height (now 483 feet tall) and power (2.3 MW each), and the substation has also changed location. Wells said that changes were required for two reasons: first, new turbine models became available by the manufacturer and second, a day before the company’s final financial statements were due to close, the landowner on whose land the substation was to be placed decided he wanted neither the planned substation (which would serve all seven turbines) nor the planned turbine, on his property.
The Town of Enfield board plans to have at least one more community meeting to discuss the construction of Black Oak Wind Farm.