Officials in Yates and Somerset blame the state for creating a system that pits local towns against developers.
- Upstate towns are being flooded with renewable solar and wind projects.
- The Lighthouse Wind project caused friction in families but united Pro-Trump Republicans and Biden Democrats.
- One local embraces the NIMBY tag, saying that not all renewable projects are environmentally sound.
After eight years filled with raucous public hearings, lawsuits, debate over the flight path of birds and bats, families divided, political careers launched, it ended with just three paragraphs.
In late September, Apex Clean Energy informed state officials it was no longer seeking a permit for its Lighthouse Wind project, a plan to put towering wind turbines on thousands of acres of farmland to turn wind coming off Lake Ontario into electricity.
The letter ended a rancorous battle summed up by the letter supervisors for the towns of Yates and Somerset dashed off to the Virginia-based renewables developer last year.
“You have caused great disruption and conflict between neighbors, and you have shown no remorse whatsoever for doing so,” they wrote. “Enough is enough. Do the right thing and leave our towns for good. You are not welcome in our towns.”
A very not-in-my-backyard response?
James Simon, who was elected Yates’ town supervisor in 2015 after a write-in campaign spearheaded by Lighthouse opponents, would disagree.
To Simon, the blame lies in New York’s failure to create a strategy for its biggest electricity-generating build out in decades; one that hinges on putting millions of solar panels and hundreds of wind turbines in rural upstate towns.
Renewable developers come in and offer money to landowners, while the state sits back and referees as towns and developers fight it out.
“Where’s the rural justice?,” Simon said during an interview steps away from the Thirty Mile Point Lighthouse that once guided ships along Lake Ontario. “Are we the place where you’re going to put all the prisons, all the waste dumps, all the wind turbines and all the solar panels? Is that what we’re about … What’s going on here?”
Upstate flooded with projects
Simon’s frustration is shared by town officials across upstate New York, from the Hudson Valley to Lake Ontario.
Since 2020, the state has approved 18 solar or wind projects, many in upstate towns where land is abundant and cheap. By comparison, only six projects were approved in the prior nine years.
The pace has stepped up as the state closes in on an ambitious set of climate goals that include 70% reliance on renewables for energy over the next seven years and zero carbon emissions by 2040. The long-term target is 60 gigawatts of solar power and between 9 and 11 gigawatts of land-based wind by 2050.
One gigawatt powers about 750,000 homes.
In 2020 the state created a new agency ― the Office of Renewable Energy Siting ― to speed approvals, replacing a permitting process in the Department of Public Service criticized as “cumbersome” by developers and state officials.
Upstate towns say the switchover undermined public input, allowing the state to override local zoning laws there to protect the rural nature of their communities.
Yates and Somerset have joined three others upstate towns and birding groups in a lawsuit challenging the new process, commonly referred to as 94-C for the executive law that created ORES.
The permit for the Lighthouse Project had been under review by a siting board in the Department of Public Service, in a process known as Article 10. Article 10 has also come in for criticism because only two of seven members of the siting board that rule on permits come from impacted communities.
Diverse groups unite in opposition
The fields where the Lighthouse turbines would have gone are roughly a half-mile inland from Lake Ontario, where in mid-September waves crashed gently into the shore.
Part-time residents live in unheated cottages along the lake during summer and early fall, their lives mostly disconnected from those who live year-round in houses that back up to fields of alfalfa and grain.
But when word of the Lighthouse plan came out, they joined year-rounders in a grassroots organization known as Save Ontario Shores, created in January 2015.
It attracted a diverse group. Pro-Trump Republicans worked alongside Biden Democrats, respectful mostly of one another’s political leanings. “In the midst of a lot of divisiveness, the inappropriate siting of this project drew everyone together,” said Kate Kremer, a lawyer and SOS’s vice president.
SOS is headed by Pam Atwater, a former IBM engineer who came to the area with her husband decades ago to raise a family in the area where her husband grew up.
“There was a lot of expertise here in different fields that were really able to dig in,” Atwater said. “Biologists. Chemists. And I don’t think anybody expected that. It wasn’t ‘I just don’t want them here.’ There were concrete reasons, scientifically based. But they are dismissed by a lot of people who support renewable energy … That’s the thing that really bugs me.”
Solar panels cover the barn in Atwater’s backyard and provides the power for her home.
Families put to the test
Despite the temporary unity, the project tested friendships and family ties.
Atwater’s husband’s family has run Atwater Farms in nearby Barker since the 1800s. Some family members supported the project, leading to lingering friction.
Kremer had to drop her membership in the Sierra Club, an environmental group that’s behind the upstate renewables push.
“They (Sierra Club) sent people out to our town board meetings to try to raise some ruckus,” Kremer said. “But it’s a difficult thing when you’ve got renewable energy that doesn’t make environmental sense. It rattles them and it shakes the foundation of what they’re trying to get through. There are some renewable projects that are not environmentally sound.”
She embraces the NIMBY tag some have put on her. She reminds them that environmental movements, like the one that started at Love Canal near Niagara Falls, was spurred on by local advocates who do a lot of work for no pay.
“These NIMBY’s do the work that the government is supposed to do to keep people safe and respond to community concerns,” she said.
Apex won’t say whether their decision to pull their permit out of Article 10 means it won’t re-file an application with ORES under the new 94-C process.
Apex spokesman Steve Bowers would only say this:
“After years of investment and engagement with the Somerset and Yates communities, Apex decided to conclude its development of Lighthouse Wind.”
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