BARKER — Following nearly two hours of often impassioned public comment, the Somerset Town Board on Monday approved a series of changes to the local zoning code aimed at banning the sort of large-scale wind energy system that Apex Clean Energy is proposing. The members' votes were unanimous.
Dozens of opponents of Apex's proposed wind project erupted in applause after each vote on the three proposed local laws. Many praised the board for taking action to preserve the bucolic character of their community and defend it against the threat of up to 70, 500-plus-foot-tall wind turbines. (An Apex spokesman this week denied the company is considering wind turbines taller than 600 feet.)
"I think 600-foot-tall turbines in this area are absolutely ridiculous, as many other people do," said Jeffrey Gardner, one of dozens who spoke at the packed board meeting. "That's why there's town ordinances."
The new zoning laws ban all wind turbines more than 200 feet in height and require that turbines only be constructed in industrial zoning districts, of which the town has few.
Industrial wind turbines also cannot be placed within 1 mile of any village, hamlet, school, church, cemetery or historic site, or within 3 miles of the Lake Ontario shoreline or any planned or existing public park. Additional restrictions bar large turbines from being placed within one-half mile — or a distance of six times the turbine's height, whichever is greater — of any residence, structure, public road or property line.
That, by design, leaves virtually no space in the 37-square-mile town in which industrial wind turbines could be developed legally.
"The laws proposed tonight and more generally this month go well beyond what is reasonable or justified, and carry a very clear intent to wholly restrict any wind project from ever being built in Somerset," Apex spokesman Taylor Quarles said. "This is a wind ban, plain and simple."
Quarles added that more than 100 local landowners signed contracts in support of the project, and that the laws "represent a significant taking of landowners' rights."
Meanwhile, prior to the public hearing, 15 residents submitted comments opposing the zoning law changes, versus 22 who submitted comments in favor.
Unlike the board's Jan. 10 public hearing on the proposed laws, in which Quarles stood alone in supporting Apex, Monday's hearing saw nearly a dozen residents voice their support for the proposed wind project.
"We are not invisible, as we've been described in the past couple weeks," Susan Atwater said.
Supporters highlighted the financial benefits for the town and Barker Central School District, via annual installments of $1.5 million through a Payment In Lieu Of Taxes agreement with Apex. That would be especially useful, they argued, at a time when the town is bleeding revenue because of declining PILOT payments from Somerset Operating Company.
The power plant's PILOT payments have decreased from nearly $1.2 million in 2008 to $139,000 this year, forcing the town to increase taxes by 113 percent in its 2018 budget.
"You said the next few years are going to be very challenging years for the town of Somerset. We need to plan for a future that does not include the power plant," said Shawn O'Grady. "So if you guys are shutting down all plans for the wind project, what are you proposing to put in place of that?"
Other supporters said revenue from the power plant helped improve Barker schools and pay for new town infrastructure and services. To them, the wind project opposition looks an awful lot like the resistance to the power plant years ago.
"Once the money from the (power plant's) PILOT started rolling in, the opposition went into the woodwork," said Howard Pierce.
But wind project opponents, who clearly outnumbered supporters, argued that a tax increase was a small price to pay to keep the town's horizon clear and pristine.
"There's no beauty in those big turbines. We don't need them," said William Engert.
Other opponents claimed to have had bad experiences living near wind turbines.
Cathi Orr said the noise from the Stone Creek Energy wind project pushed her, along with many others, to leave the town of Orangeville in Wyoming County.
"There is nobody in this room who has been not able to sleep at night" because of the noise from a wind turbine, Orr said. "I could go to Wyoming County and show you the mass exodus of people who have left since the Orangeville project went on, since the Sheldon project was started."
Noise from proposed wind turbines was at the center of two changes to the proposed laws that prompted Monday's public hearing. The board held a hearing on the laws themselves Jan. 10. Amendments followed to increase the minimum setback from neighbors should the turbines raise the noise level above six decibels at a residence and create models to determine noise level limits.
Quarles said the sound limits lacked justification, and pointed out that the town permits noise levels of up to 80 decibels during the day and up to 50 decibels in residential districts for all other uses. "These laws go far and above the noise limits successfully being utilized in successful wind projects already operating safely across the state," he said.
But the anti-wind majority welcomed the additional restrictions. And, what's more, other provisions in the zoning laws bar large wind turbines anyway.
Wind project opponents also raised concerns about the potential for damage to birds, the noise and sight impacts on people with disabilities and the use of state subsidies for the project.
"It's not a matter of looking at these (turbines); it's a matter of what the total impacts are," Pam Atwater said.
Speakers on both sides of the issue said the new zoning laws may be all for naught.
Under Article 10 of the New York State Public Service Law, a state-appointed siting board has the power to review and permit major (25 mW or more) electric generating facilities. The siting board consists of five members of the governor’s administration and two local representatives of the area where a project is proposed.
Attorney Benjamin Winiewski, special counsel to the town, said that under Article 10, the siting board must consider all "substantive" local laws, but that it could also waive any local laws that would prohibit the project.
Town Supervisor Dan Engert said the adoption of explicitly anti-wind zoning ordinances means the siting board would have to grant "extraordinary waivers" to the town's laws.
Engert believes the siting board is not inclined to grant such waivers, citing comments from board chairman John B. Rhodes. While discussing the recently-approved Cassadaga Wind Project, Rhodes said energy projects must "accommodate the concerns of local communities" and called it "noteworthy and positive" that the Cassadaga project conformed to local laws and ordinances.
"In this particular case, the siting board would essentially have to rewrite major portions of the town's comprehensive plan, they would have to overrule and rewrite large portions of the zoning districts in our town and then strike — and give reasons for striking — each and every provision of the local law," Engert said. "We are very confident that the siting board will send a clear message to developers in New York State that you should be going to communities that are supportive of additional wind projects."
Engert added that he agrees with Quarles on one point: Dozens of towns across the state have mostly welcomed wind projects, and many residents in those communities are asking for more turbines.
"I would encourage him to go seek out those communities and site a project there," Engert said. "Clearly, it's not welcome here."