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Town attorney says public vote in Barre about turbines would be ‘meaningless’

By Tom Rivers, Editor Posted 13 December 2018 at 8:48 am

7-member Siting Board with 5 state agency leaders makes the decision

Photo by Tom Rivers: Lance Mark, the Barre town attorney, responds to a request from  resident to have a public referendum about a proposed wind turbine project.

BARRE – Town Board members were asked on Wednesday to put a proposed wind turbine project on the ballot, so residents could make their opinion known on the 47 turbines that would peak at about 600 feet.

John Metzler said surveys on the project have only included a small percentage of residents, including some respondents who don’t live in the town.

“Let all the people of Barre speak,” Metzler said at the Town Board meeting. “That’s the only way to bring a fair end to this.”

The town hired LaBella to do a survey, which accepted responses until July 27. Of the 290 respondents, 44 percent said they are supportive of the project, while 39 percent oppose it, 8 percent are neutral and 7 percent need more information.

Apex Clean Energy, which is working on the wind turbine project in Barre, also commissioned a phone survey in July which included 170 responses from area residents, with 52 percent stating they support the project, compared to 22 percent who say they oppose it.

Metzler said the surveys are far short of getting the opinion of the entire town, which included 2,025 residents in the 2010 Census.

He asked each of the five board members if they supported having a referendum on the project. Lynn Hill, Richard Bennett and Larry Gaylard responded no, while Tom McCabe said he wanted to check if that is legal. Town Supervisor Sean Pogue said he would instead favor a larger public forum where Apex could bring in experts to answer residents’ questions, similar to an Oct. 2 meeting in Lyndonville for Apex’s proposed Lighthouse Wind project in Yates and Somerset.

Town Attorney Lance Mark said a referendum wouldn’t be binding because the state has created a Siting Board through an Article 10 process that will determine if the projects are approved or not. The Siting Board has been through one application so far and approved a wind turbine project in Chautauqua County.

“It’s meaningless,” Mark said about a referendum. “It doesn’t control the outcome of siting turbines.”

Metzler said a referendum would still be beneficial for residents.

“It’s not a legal requirement,” he said about a public vote. “I’m looking to give everyone a fair voice.”

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.

The Siting Board also includes two representatives from the project area. Robin Nacca of Barre has been appointed to the Siting Board while the other local representative hasn’t been named yet.

Nacca attended Wednesday’s meeting and she said the local sentiment for or against the project is a factor in the Siting Board’s decision.

“The Siting Board has to be unbiased judges and listen to both sides,” she said. “However, the Siting Board doesn’t want to go against the majority.”

Mark agreed the Siting Board will consider community sentiment. He said a citizens’ group, Clear Skies Over Barre, has been recognized by the state to raise concerns from the community.

As part of its preliminary scoping statement for the 200-megawatt project, Apex needed to provide $350 per megawatt or $70,000 in intervenor funds for the local community to hire experts to review the Apex proposal. A judge determined the Town of Barre would receive $40,000 in those funds and Clear Skies Above Barre would have $30,000. That will allow the groups to hire environmental attorneys and experts to review the Apex submission.

Kerri Richardson, Clear Skies president, said Clear Skies wanted $78,000 “to do the job we wanted to do.” The $30,000 has been spent, she told town officials on Wednesday.

She said the town and Clear Skies should have worked together to maximize the funds. The town should be advocating for residents, too, and not expecting Clear Skies to do all of that work, Richardson said.

She told the Town Board she was disappointed it met in executive session on Tuesday with two representatives from Apex. That meeting was only posted on the door of the Town Hall, without many residents knowing the meeting had been called.

Pogue, the town supervisor, was asked by residents what the meeting was about. He said, “negotiations,” and declined to give more details.

“I’m not going to get into it,” Pogue said. “It was an executive session.”

Richardson questioned if it was a legal executive session. If Apex and the Town Board were discussing proposed changes to the town’s zoning for wind turbines, including setbacks, that should have been a public discussion, Richardson said.

Pogue and Mark said if there are any proposed changes in the ordinance there would be a public hearing and residents could provide feedback.

Pogue said the Town Board is pushing to have a draft of a revised wind turbine ordinance done next month, with a public hearing to follow.

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