Article

Big wind, big problems

In Vermont the parties are still waiting for a decision on the Sheffield project, which was argued before the high court in May. A clerk at the Supreme Court said Tuesday she has no idea when a decision might be announced. Meanwhile, the opponents of big wind in western New York believe they are finally getting the recognition they deserve with this month's announcement by the AG's office in Albany.

Big wind is being touted throughout the Northeast as the most viable source of renewable energy. Yet from Maine to New York its developers have sparked controversy, divided communities, and in the most recent case, have prompted the New York Attorney General's Office to launch a criminal investigation into their business dealings with local officials.

Earlier this month, on July 15, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that his office would investigate criminal allegations of fraud and anti-competitive business practices against two industrial wind companies operating in western New York.

One is a Connecticut-based company known as Noble Environment Power, and the other is UPC of Newton, Massachusetts. UPC, which recently changed its name to First Wind, is no stranger to New England. It has projects up and running in Maine, and roughly a year ago it received a certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board to construct a 16-turbine wind farm along the ridgelines in the town of Sheffield.

But the project in Sheffield, like the ones in Mars Hill, Maine, and in Cohocton and Prattsburgh, New York, has run into a buzzsaw of opposition. Plans to get construction under way this summer... more [truncated due to possible copyright]  

Big wind is being touted throughout the Northeast as the most viable source of renewable energy. Yet from Maine to New York its developers have sparked controversy, divided communities, and in the most recent case, have prompted the New York Attorney General's Office to launch a criminal investigation into their business dealings with local officials.

Earlier this month, on July 15, New York Attorney General Andrew Cuomo announced that his office would investigate criminal allegations of fraud and anti-competitive business practices against two industrial wind companies operating in western New York.

One is a Connecticut-based company known as Noble Environment Power, and the other is UPC of Newton, Massachusetts. UPC, which recently changed its name to First Wind, is no stranger to New England. It has projects up and running in Maine, and roughly a year ago it received a certificate of public good from the Vermont Public Service Board to construct a 16-turbine wind farm along the ridgelines in the town of Sheffield.

But the project in Sheffield, like the ones in Mars Hill, Maine, and in Cohocton and Prattsburgh, New York, has run into a buzzsaw of opposition. Plans to get construction under way this summer have been put on hold while the Vermont Supreme Court sifts through arguments that the project fails to comply with the criteria for building new electrical generating facilities.

Over in Mars Hill, neighbors to First Wind's 28-tower wind farm have individually filed law suits against the company, alleging that noise from the turbines has eroded their peace and serenity, depreciated their property values, and exacerbated medical problems like migraine headaches.

A breakthrough, though, may be in the works.

Late last month First Wind representatives met with the Maine property owners to discuss their allegations. One of the most persistent issues for the group, according to Carol Cowperthwaite, one of the property owners, is the noise the turbines make when generating power. The property owners believe the company never followed through on a permit requirement that it obtain noise easements from the wind farm's neighbors.

Ms. Cowperthwaite said she wanted to know: "Where were those damn noise easements we were supposed to be seeing?"

For the 13 to 17 neighbors at the meeting, the discussion may have ended on a hopeful note as the company's representatives asked what it would take to settle their differences.

"When they left they asked us what we wanted, which kind of opened the door to a settlement," said Ms. Cowperthwaite in a telephone interview Tuesday.

In Vermont the parties are still waiting for a decision on the Sheffield project, which was argued before the high court in May. A clerk at the Supreme Court said Tuesday she has no idea when a decision might be announced.

Meanwhile, the opponents of big wind in western New York believe they are finally getting the recognition they deserve with this month's announcement by the AG's office in Albany.

"The phone has been ringing off the hook," said James Hall of Cohocton, who in an interview Monday said he had just returned from a trip visiting newspapers, like the New York Times, to explain why he and others oppose the project.

Mr. Hall, who said his house will be surrounded with more towers than anywhere else in western New York, credited a "district attorney in a rural county" for getting the AG's office involved.

Over the last few years, wind farms have allegedly proliferated in the state, with more than 177 projects in the pipeline - a number Mr. Hall called mind-blowing.

"It's the largest infusion of cash in western, northern, and central New York in its entire history," he said, noting that the turbine count in his state is up to 7,000.

He believes the investigation will have statewide ramifications.

On the telephone Tuesday from his office in Newton, Massachusetts, First Wind spokesman John Lamontagne was reluctant to give the company's side of the story.

"As you can imagine in this kind of thing, we can't say too much," he said.

Initially, the company responded to news of the investigation by promising it would cooperate with the AG's office. Since making the announcement two weeks ago, the AG's office appears to [be] keeping mum about the case. Repeated calls this week to Mr. Cuomo's public relations office in Albany were not returned. A July 15 press release from the office listed four areas to be investigated:

"All documents concerning any benefits conferred on any individual or entity in connection with wind farm activity;

"All agreements, easements or contracts with individuals regarding the placement of wind turbines;

"Agreements between wind companies that may indicated anti-competition practices; and

"All documents pertaining to any payments or benefits received from local, state or federal agencies."

Yet, while the AG's investigation will be conducted out of the public's eye, civil lawsuits filed by citizens from Cohocton and Prattsburgh, along with a condemnation fight over First Wind's need to gain access over private property to lay underground transmission lines, are likely to continue to stir passions on both sides.

Seven landowners from Prattsburgh are expected to go to court and ask judge to throw out a local condemnation due to a conflict of interest by one of the members of the town board.

Ruthe Matilsky of Prattsburgh, an opponent of the wind farm, said in an interview last week that the board member in question had been asked to recuse himself from voting because of a real estate transaction he had with First Wind. He refused and broke a tie vote of 2 to 2 that allowed the condemnation order to go forward.

Ms. Matilsky also noted there are allegations that First Wind paid $22,000 for building permits it didn't need. She noted that no state agencies were on hand to supervise the project and watch out for public safety.

Both Cohocton and Prattsburgh are small rural towns located in the Finger Lakes district in western New York. About an hour's drive from Rochester, Cohocton has no industry, and one Internet blogger describes the downtown area as "a very depressing one block stretch of nothing."

Ms. Matilsky, however, described the area as a beautiful place that attracts tourists. Prattsburgh, she said, lies "at the heart of the Finger Lakes." The 2000 census lists the town's population at about 2,000 people, and noted that its median household income was $32,150.

Mr. Hall, a New York businessman who sold his business and retired in his early forties moved to Cohocton roughly 13 years ago. He called New York "a home rule state," explaining it runs on the principle that the "government closest to the people governs best."

But when it comes to big wind developers, he said, local and county agencies had let the public down.

"To authorize eminent domain to help a developer with a project that cannot provide any economic benefit of any kind, it's completely out of control," he said.

No towers have yet been raised in Prattsburgh, and of the 50 that have been erected in the Cohocton area, none are operational, according to Mr. Hall. Ultimately wind opponents hope to establish in court that the wind farms are being illegally built, and that the towers should be taken down.

Not everyone in town, however, believes that First Wind is running roughshod over the community. One of the farmers who has signed a contract to lease land to the company was quoted on the Internet as saying he liked doing business with the wind developers.

Paul Wolcott said he had "a very good relationship" with First Wind, and complimented the company for the way it did business with him.

Yet what sounds like a difference of opinion may run deeper. Mr. Hall acknowledged that the controversy over big wind was dividing the community, and in some cases, pitting families with deep roots in the community against newcomers.

"If Cohocton had 25 to 50 houses of my value, they wouldn't need a wind farm," he said, adding that the natives in town don't want educated, rich people running the community. A family who has resided in town for three generations, he said, would still be considered outsiders.

As for the people fighting big wind, Mr. Hall characterized them as "ordinary people spending their retirement money."

When UPC changed its name to First Wind on May 1, CEO Paul Gaynor was quoted on the company's web site as saying the new name "clearly reflects who we are as a company...." A company press release the same day noted that First Wind is "an American owned company with a proven track record of developing, owning, and operating well sited, community friendly wind farms that increase energy independence."

Clearly it's an image that doesn't square with Mr. Hall's characterization of a company that "fails to develop a project that is anywhere close to what they represented it would be."

It's a grating contrast for the public, and one that may tax the resources of New York's top cop to straighten out.


Source: http://www.bartonchronicle....

JUL 30 2008
https://www.windaction.org/posts/16251-big-wind-big-problems
back to top