ITHACA, NY - Judging by the line out the door, you would think you were attending a premiere of the new Star Wars film, not a town meeting about a wind farm.
Yet that was the scene as well over 100 Tompkins residents filed into the gymnasium at the Enfield Elementary School for a discussion and question and answer session about the controversial Black Oak Wind Farm project.
Emotions ran high as several residents made impassioned pleas both for and against the project. There was frequent applause for both viewpoints. Some opponents leveled accusations of deceit and underhanded tactics against Black Oak, while others debated the science of wind farm safety with the project representatives and experts on hand.
The night reached its emotional high point when a distraught Enfield woman alleged that a member of the Black Oak organization physically restrained her to prevent her from speaking, and threatened to call the police. The woman left the room soon after. No further details were available at the time of this writing.
Areas of concern
Despite the level of tension - and aside from the alleged physical altercation - the meeting was held in relative order, thanks in part to Community Dispute Resolution Center mediator Jeff Shepardson.
Five major areas of concern were laid out, with the intent that the public make comments and ask questions on one concern at a time, followed by a response from company representatives, town board members or experts on-hand. The discussion didn't always keep to the format, but the proceedings were generally civil and respectful.
The major concern areas were:
- impact on real estate value
- noise and health concerns
- Black Oak's "Good Neighbor Agreement"
- roads and construction side effects
- ice-throw and setbacks
(Ice throw refers to the potential danger of accumulated ice being thrown from turbine blades, possibly causing damage or injury. Setbacks is the term for how far a turbine must be from a property line or residence for safety).
Safety a major worry
The most frequently and loudly voiced concerns were in regards to safety. Over the course of project - which is now more than 7 years in the making - the town of Enfield passed legislation that regulated setbacks for the wind turbines. The legislation stated that they must be approximately 500 feet from the nearest residence, and approximately 200 feet from the nearest property line.
General Electric, who manufactures the turbines to be used, recommends a minimum distance of roughly 1,000 feet. Despite Black Oak's claims that the they would be placing turbines on average 1,500 feet away from most homes, many residents still expressed concerns about ice-throw, or turbines falling on their house or catching fire.
Another hotly debated topic was sound level. Some residents expressed concern that the sound would affect their quality of life, or even affect their health through low-frequency "infrasound" produced by the turbines.
Acoustic engineer Brian Callahan refuted these claims, saying that modern turbines produce minimal sound, and that infrasound produced by the machines is far less than the ambient infrasound that exists in nature.
Some public speakers, who said they had visited wind farms, confirmed that claim. One remarked that, while sitting right next to a turbine, she could hear the sound of an approaching car more clearly than the spinning of the blades.
Other frequent concerns expressed included worries about local wildlife, questions about tax burden, and issues with the "Good Neighbor" agreement. Full details of what was learned at the meeting may be addressed in a future article.
Black Oak vice president and project manager Marguerite Wells, who fielded many of the questions during the discussion, made it clear that the project was rigorously studied, regulated and adjusted to ensure the safety of residents, their property and the environment were safe.
"Big picture" arguments
Many who spoke did come out in favor of the wind farm, speaking to the "bigger picture" issue of reliance on fossil fuels and global warming. They pointed out that many other communities are being destroyed by coal mining, fracking or oil drilling and that wind farms were safe and non-destructive by comparison.
It was impossible not to notice a clear divide, however: a substantial number of the speakers who took this stance were not Enfield residents, and many were investors with the wind farm.
(Note: That is not to say that there were not also many Enfield residents who supported the farm - only that comparably few of them made public statements. Many positive comments were met with applause, and many people in the crowd wore stickers or held signs in favor of the farm.)
Many spoke from personal experience with wind power, including a Cornell professor who said he had visited over a half-dozen wind farms, often with students, and saw no hint of danger nor any significant impact from sound.
Other speakers praised Black Oak on other merits. Bill Goldsmith, an 8-year veteran of Ithaca's Board of Public Works said that Black Oak's policy to repair damage and overhaul the roads used during construction made it "about the best project I've ever heard of."
Another speaker praised the company for committing to use local labor.
Allegations, conflicting information
At several points, members of the public presented information that directly clashed with statements made by Black Oak's Marguerite Wells.
One of the most contentious issues was the "Good Neighbor" agreement. According to Wells, the agreement is simply an acknowledgement of the inconvenience imposed by the wind farm, for which signing residents would be compensated $500 annually.
One Enfield resident angrily complained that she felt bullied and harried by representatives trying to get her to sign.
Some members of the public - including the woman who alleged that she was physically restrained - claimed that the agreement included a "gag order" that prevented them from speaking against the project under threat of lawsuit. Another woman, who said she was licensed to practice law in New York, said that the agreement constituted a binding contract, waiving rights to sue in case of an accident or other issue.
"There is no gag order. I promise you that," Wells said. She also denied that by signing the agreement, a person was waiving any rights.
As the talk stretched toward the two-hour mark, it was clear Wells grew frustrated with the accusations and conflicting information. Sarcasm crept into her responses in more than one exchange with Black Oak's more combative critics. "These Good Neighbor agreements we went around with are literally an attempt to be good neighbors. Almost no wind farms offer it... and at this point, for all the flack I've gotten, I'm kind of wishing we hadn't," she said at one point.
The night ended with a solicitation of ideas on how to move forward by Enfield's town board. Several ideas were offered. Some urged opponents to fact check their ideas about wind power. The other side urged proponents to think about those in the "sacrifice zones" who would be most affected.
There was one suggestion that was practically a certainty: "Keep talking."