Barre Town Board decides to let state determine turbine height, setbacks

Photos by Tom Rivers: Barre resident George McKenna speaks during Wednesday’s Town Board meeting. He urged the Town Board and community to push for the maximum benefits from a possible turbine project before Barre loses its leverage in negotiations. He was critical of the board for not insisting on bigger setbacks for the turbines. The board decided to let a state siting board determine what would be appropriate.

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 11 January 2019 at 9:05 am

Citizens group angry that Barre officials declined to push for bigger turbine distances from houses, property lines

Town Supervisor Sean Pogue said the board has been inundated with documents, for and against the wind turbine project. The board decided it wouldn’t update the town’s zoning ordinance for wind energy projects that was adopted in 2008.

BARRE – Residents and Apex Clean Energy have been waiting for the town to decide how it will update its zoning ordinance for wind turbines, with the town setting parameters for turbine height, and setbacks from houses, property lines and roads.

The ordinance would also set rules for shadow flicker, noise and other environmental issues, as well as the decommissioning of the turbines.

Clear Skies Above Barre, a citizens group, submitted its recommendations to the town and many other residents also weighed in. Apex Clean Energy offered its suggestions.

The Town Board on Wednesday made its decision: the ordinance would remain unchanged from when it was passed in 2008. The board opted to have a State Siting Board decide what is appropriate for turbine heights, setbacks and the other environmental issues.

The resolution from the Town Board noted that Clear Skies and some citizens requested amendments to the town’s wind energy ordinance and Apex asked for opposing amendments. With the opposing views, as well as reams of information about issues with turbines, the Town Board will have the Siting Board be responsible for considering the different impacts.

Board members Richard Bennett, Tom McCabe, Lynn Hill and Sean Pogue voted in favor of the resolution, with Larry Gaylard abstaining because he has a lease with Apex.

Kerri Richardson, president of Clear Skies, told the board she is disappointed it didn’t bolster protections in the ordinance for residents. Clear Skies worked for many months on the issues, researching and working with a consultant to offer input for the board.

Kerri Richardson, president of Clear Skies Above Barre, said the Town Board has failed to protect residents with a proposed project that includes 47 wind turbines that would peak at 591 feet tall.

“It showed it reality it didn’t matter, the time and effort we have done to protect our neighbors, our children and the community,” Richardson said. “That’s infuriating.”

The town should have pushed to update the ordinance, especially because Apex is proposing turbines that are nearly 600 feet tall, which would be the largest on-land turbines in the United States, Richardson said.

“Town Board you have handed over the decision to the state,” she said. “You were elected to protect us. You just gave away the opportunity to protect our citizens.”

The seven-member Siting Board has five state representatives including the chairman of the Department of Public Service, commissioner of the Department of Environmental Conservation, commissioner of the Department of Health, chairman of the New York State Energy Research and Development Authority, and the commissioner of Economic Development.

Two other ad hoc members from the local community will be on the board to review the project. One local resident has been appointed so far – Robin Nacca, who lives on Route 98. Her property is adjacent to land that has been leased for a possible turbine.

The town law from 2008 caps the turbine height at no more than 500 feet. That would be too small for Apex, which is proposing 47 turbines that would be 591 feet high, at maximum tip height.

Ben Yazman, the Apex project manager, said Apex will seek a waiver for the height through the Article 10 review process.

Yazman said Apex has met many times with town officials, offering suggestions for the town ordinance that he said would address local concerns. He wanted to avoid having the Siting Board decide turbine height, setbacks and many of the other issues, with the town instead reaching a decision.

The Barre turbines are planned to generate 4.2 megawatts per turbine, nearly triple the power from the models from a decade ago which were about 400 feet high.

Town Board member Richard Bennett said the board has been accused of not caring about the health and safety of residents. Bennett bristled at that suggestion and said the community will have plenty of opportunities to voice its concerns about the turbine project through the Article 10 process that the state.

Barre opted its wind ordinance in 2008 when a different developer was looking at the town for a project that didn’t end up materializing. Apex has proposed some revisions to the ordinance “to modernize the technological standards of the law,” Yazman has said.

Clear Skies pushed for farther setbacks than the current town law. The current ordinance says the turbines need a property line setback of at least 1.5 times the tip height. That is for the property lines where the turbine is located.

The current ordinance also says the turbines need to be at least 1,000 feet from any existing residential or commercial building.

Apex has agreed to 1,500 foot setbacks from residential buildings. Yazman also suggested 1.5 times the tip height for setbacks from property lines for non-participating property owners, or landowners without an Apex lease.

Clear Skies said the setbacks should be six times the turbine height. That would be at least 3,600 feet or more than a half mile for 600-foot-tall turbines.

She also said the minimum setbacks should be the same for all residents, with lease holders not having them closer to their houses. That way all residents have equal protection from infra-sound, shadow flicker, ground vibrations and other adverse effects, Richardson said.

Town Councilman Tom McCabe said the board has wrestled with the issue for over a year.

“Information has been inundated on us,” he said. “We’ve dug into it and it’s been a long drawn-out process to figure out what to do.”

Richardson acknowledged there are many conflicting reports and studies about turbines. Board members and residents need to thoroughly vet the information, and check to see a wind developer is funding favorable research.

“I’m not going to deny there are studies on both sides of the project and that’s what makes it difficult to decipher,” she told the board.

Town Board member Richard Bennett bristled at comments that the board was passing on its responsibilities for protecting the health and safety of residents. Bennett said there will be plenty of opportunities to weigh in on these issues through the Article 10 process.

“This isn’t over yet,” he said.

Vance Wyder, a resident of the nearby Tonawanda Indian Reservation, wears a headdress with eagle feathers. He holds an eagle feather that was sent to him from Colorado. Wyder said wildlife needs to be protected. “I know we need power,” he said. “But how do we incorporate it to protect the eagles?”

George McKenna, a Barre resident, said the board shouldn’t have made a decision about the ordinance until it had negotiated a community benefits package with Apex. The company has said the community will likely receive about $1.5 million in revenue to offset taxes.

McKenna said that is a low number for a 200-megawatt project. Barre should push for more money, but has lost some of its bargaining power with the decision on Wednesday.

“If you’re going to negotiate, negotiate while you have leverage,” he said.

Richardson, who is McKenna’s daughter, also said the town made a decision to soon on the ordinance.

“The $1.5 million is very minimal,” she said. “If we’re going to be benefitting, we need to be negotiating before we settled.”

She noted the $1.5 million wouldn’t all go to directly to Barre taxpayers. It will likely be split among the town, Albion school district and Orleans County.

John Metzler, a vocal critic of the turbine project, said the board should have a moratorium on any decisions about the proposed Heritage Wind until the town residents are all canvassed for their opinion on whether the project is good for Barre. He reiterated his concerns about the turbines’ effect on human health and local wildlife.

Iva McKenna told the board it could have easily followed suggestions from the World Health Organization about siting turbines. The board should have included assurances about property value guarantees in the ordinance.

“This community will be changed very dramatically by the pockets of a few,” she said.

Town Supervisor Sean Pogue acknowledged that lease holders will see the biggest financial benefit with the project. However, he said all Barre property owners should see a tax reduction if the project goes forward.

“As far as we’re concerned if that wind energy complex comes into town everyone who pays taxes will get a financial benefit,” Pogue said.

The board was asked how it came to its decision, to keep the wind ordinance unchanged because the board members haven’t publicly debated the issue among themselves. At Wednesday’s meeting, “Resolution #3” was on the agenda with no additional description. The board voted on it without discussion.

George McKenna said he was baffled why the town didn’t push for more distance from turbines to houses and property lines.

“If we could have only one thing it would be setbacks,” he said. “We want setbacks that protect the health, safety and welfare of the residents.”

During the meeting on Wednesday, Pogue asked Richardson how many of the 63 members of Clear Skies live in Barre. Richardson said 84 percent are Barre residents, 6 percent are land owners who didn’t live in Barre and another 10 percent are outside Barre.

Pogue asked to see the names of the Clear Skies members. He said Richardson has requested numerous documents from the town about the Apex project, including a review of postcards sent to the town in support of Heritage Wind.

“It works both ways,” Pogue told her. “How about fairness.”

Richardson said the Clear Skies members are all volunteers, and some have put their own funds into researching the project. Some members have requested anonymity because they fear retribution. She said she would reach out to the membership to see who is comfortable with their names being released to the Town Board.

Pogue said he just wants to be sure the group is comprised of Barre residents.

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