The Florida Planning Board once again reviewed environmental impacts from a wind turbine proposed in the town during a special meeting on Monday.
TOWN OF FLORIDA — The decision officials will make on a controversial wind turbine proposed in the town of Florida remains unclear as the Planning Board prepares to vote on the project next week.
The Planning Board once again reviewed environmental impacts from the 4.3 megawatt community wind project proposed at 153 YMCA Road by New Leaf Energy during a special session on Monday just one week before the next regular meeting.
The board is racing against the clock to complete the required State Environmental Quality Review (SEQR) process and issue a final determination on the project by Dec. 12 under the timeline agreed to by the developers.
A final decision would have been required this month under normal procedures in town law calling for such action within 62 days of the public hearing on the project, which was held on Sept. 12. Officials agreed to a 30 day extension to provide time to complete the project review.
Officials have found the proposed wind turbine that would stand 650-feet tall when the blades reach their highest points would create a variety of moderate to large impacts through the environmental review process
Yet, a draft evaluation of the magnitude of those effects prepared by the town’s engineering consultants, Barton and Loguidice, and presented to the board for consideration suggests the impacts could be adequately addressed or explained to prevent them from causing a significant adverse impact under SEQR.
“If you don’t feel that way, then that statement has to change,” said Stephen Le Fevre, of Barton Loguidice. “I’m not telling you what way to go. I’m just telling you that’s how it’s written right now.”
The evaluation is expected to be revised based on input from the board before next week’s meeting, but officials did not give Le Fevre any direction on the final position that should be taken or otherwise discuss whether they believe the project would have a significant adverse impact if approved.
Still, Planning Board Chairman Michael Taylor said the finding could be amended when the board reviews the revised assessment at its next meeting.
“Definitely that could change in the future,” Taylor said.
If the board concludes through the SEQR process the project would have a significant adverse impact, the developers could be required to complete an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) involving thorough studies of identified issues to develop mitigation measures.
New Leaf Energy has already completed pertinent studies analyzing impacts to land, water, air, noise, wildlife, aesthetics, historic features, community character and more as part of the application and review process, Le Fevre noted.
Those assessments guided project plans to limit disruptions to the community, along with input from various agencies to ensure it meets state standards, according to the developers.
The board could still require more targeted studies focusing on specific areas of concern or find that the project will result in significant impacts without requiring an EIS to be completed.
If the board determines the project will not have a significant adverse impact, Taylor indicated that would likely lead to the project being approved for construction. He said the board would otherwise lack the grounds to deny the project under that scenario.
Indeed, Le Fevre said the board’s goal should be to prepare a “bullet proof” evaluation of the environmental impacts in rendering its decision to protect the town from potential litigation.
“You want to make sure that it’s ironclad,” Le Fevre said.
RESIDENTS WEIGH IN
Residents critical of the project renewed calls urging the board to require the developers to go through the time consuming and often costly EIS process to address their concerns or potentially derail the project.
New Leaf Energy earlier this year withdrew its application for a similar turbine project proposed in nearby Glen after that town’s Planning Board notified the developers of its intent to require more rigorous assessments through an EIS.
“To me this is a fishing expedition, it started in Glen,” resident Ken Moritz said. “They’re just trying to hook us.”
However, the project reviews conducted by the two communities differ in that Glen does not have zoning laws addressing turbines with set standards developers must follow. Florida by contrast has regulations governing and allowing wind projects.
The proposed 650-foot turbine exceeds Florida laws limiting the devices to a maximum height of 400-feet, resident Kristeen Jaracz pointed out. The developers secured a height variance for the project from the Zoning Board of Appeals last December. But Jaracz said other standards for turbines set in town law were not adjusted to match the impacts from allowing a taller device.
“There are so many things based upon the height and size of this thing that doesn’t match [our] regulations,” Jaracz said. “Why are we even considering being a guinea pig for the residents and how it affects the town? I think we really need to look at that and there should be an Environmental Impact Statement before this is even considered.”
Residents of the rural farm community were clear they believe any impacts from the device would be significant and simply unacceptable.
“This is a huge project and you need to really think through this, it will change our town permanently,” Lori Rulison said. “We’re going to have to live with this forever, so please I’m asking you to take your time and say ‘no.’”
The Planning Board has identified 12 moderate to large impacts through the SEQR process requiring explanation or mitigation. More concrete items deal with such issues as the noise of the device in operations, shadow flicker caused by the turning blades that can intermittently blot out daylight inside nearby homes and disruptions to birds and bats in the area.
The developers have indicated the distance of the device from nearby homes would keep impacts from noise and shadow flicker within levels allowed by the state. Studies submitted by New Leaf found sound from the turbine at the nearest home would be capable of reaching up to 41 decibels described as equivalent to soft speech from 3 feet away.
Another study found that seven out of 15 homes and structures within several thousand feet of the turbine would likely be impacted by shadow flicker to some extent. Homes further out would not be impacted. A home on YMCA Road would be most affected experiencing around 18 hours and 43 minutes of shadow flicker each year. At worst that could reach up to 63 hours a year.
“I can’t imagine anyone having to live with that even for a few moments,” resident William Bonner said. “To me with those facts alone it is just an immediate ‘no.’”
The shadow flicker and other visual impacts could be tamped down by planting evergreen trees near affected homes after the device is installed. New Leaf would set up an escrow account to cover the cost. Le Fevre acknowledged it would take time for trees to grow tall enough to effectively screen the impacts of the 650-foot tall turbine.
“There is no redwood forest that is going to hide that tower,” Moritz said. “That wind turbine is going to be seen.”
The threat to wildlife has already been addressed by the state Department of Environmental Conservation, which would require New Leaf to obtain an Endangered/Threatened Species Incidental Take Permit in the event a protected species of bird was killed by the turbine.
Bats would be protected by powering down the device during seasonal conditions when they are commonly active from July 1 through Oct. 1 from 30 minutes before sundown until after sunrise when wind speeds fall below 5.5 meters per second and temperatures are above 50 degrees.
Many of the impacts noted by the Planning Board are more subjective relating to aesthetic resources, community character and the project’s potential to “cause a diminishment of the public enjoyment and appreciation” of local resources or “result in the introduction of visual elements which are out of character with the site or property.”
However, the draft evaluation submitted by Barton Loguidice states, “the project is unlikely to be visible to citizens enjoying nearby municipal parks and aesthetic resources.” No members of the board brought up the seemingly contradictory conclusion. Screening around impacted properties is the only suggested mitigation measure.
Planning Board members have yet to stake their positions on the project, although Stephen Viele raised the prospect of requiring New Leaf to prepare an EIS during a workshop in September based on concerns raised by officials and residents. Viele was absent from Monday’s meeting.
Town Attorney Deborah Slezak has been asked to prepare dual resolutions for the board to either find the project will or will not have a significant adverse impact under SEQR.
For his part, Taylor acknowledged he is still “on the fence,” understanding both the concerns of impassioned locals and the project’s role in broader goals of shifting to renewable energy sources.
“I don’t know which way I’m going to go,” Taylor said.