Monday, March 08, 2010

Courts to decide wind farm fight


The Prattsburgh Town Board will face wind developer Ecogen in court, despite divided public opinion about that decision.

The board voted 4-1 in favor of court action Tuesday night after a special meeting held by the new town board to gauge residents’ reaction to a lawsuit filed by wind developer Ecogen.

Town Supervisor Al Wordingham and council members Steve Kula Anneke Radin-Snaith and Chuck Shick voted to proceed with court action. Councilwoman Stacey Bottoni voted against the court action.

Ecogen is asking the state Supreme Court to allow a previous settlement in December to stand, effectively allowing the developer to begin construction of a 16-turbine wind farm in the town. Critics said the settlement took away the town’s right to home rule, and the current board rescinded the agreement in January.

Nearly 200 people crowded into the town hall basement, with roughly 46 residents taking two hours to speak out on whether the town should fight the Ecogen lawsuit.

Of those speaking, 32 supported fighting the lawsuit, while 14 said the town should settle with Ecogen.

The tally of written responses collected since Saturday was closer, with 134 favoring a legal fight and 123 telling the board to give up. The total opposing a court battle included 62 signatures on petitions submitted to the board, with many questionable signatures, according to Councilman Steve Kula.

The board also threw out more than 40 supportive letters from people living outside of Prattsburgh.

Before the comment period, Supervisor Al Wordingham said an attempt to meet Thursday with Ecogen failed because the developer would not, in turn, give the town more time to respond in court.

The town has one week to submit detailed paperwork, with a hearing set for mid-March. At the beginning of the comment period, Wordingham told residents the board would not be billed by its legal firm of Bond Schoeneck and King until January 2011.

Wordingham also talked about the potential effect the lawsuit might have on the 2011 tax levy.

A hypothetical legal cost of $100,000 passed on to taxpayers would result in a $.95 cent per $1,000 increase in the 2011 levy, Wordingham said. The current town tax rate is $7.70 per $1,000.

“That means if you have a $100,000 house, it will cost you $95,” he said.

Former town bookkeeper Dolores Billings said the town’s fund balance would not pay for legal costs this year, and warned an extended court fight would “put the town in debt for the first time in 20 years.”

But Judith Hall, a Prattsburgh property owner, told the board $20,000 has been pledged since a town hall meeting Saturday to help pay the town’s legal costs. Hall said she expects to raise $50,000.

The long-range economic effect of losing the wind farm industry concerned a number of residents. Local businessman Robert Underhill opposed a court battle, saying the town has lost industries and farms in recent years while property taxes continue to increase.

Underhill also addressed concerns about noise, saying people in other areas learn to live near noisy airports and interstate highways and railroads.

But others said the low- and high-frequency sound of the turbines threaten the health and safety of residents and require greater setbacks than current limits.

For many property owners, fighting the lawsuit was a matter of principle. Residents were concerned about control issues, such as eminent domain, while others charged Ecogen was trying to bully the town into submission.

Others asked the board to settle, simply to restore peace in the town.

“This adversarial nature is sickening,” one man told the board.

Tom McAllister said new members of the board had been elected in November by a substantial majority of the voters and had the confidence of those voters to act in the town’s best interest.

“I want you to continue to fight, but that’s just myopinion,” McAllister said. “Act on the knowledge you have … show us you are great leaders.”

After the board vote in favor of opposing Ecogen in court, Wordingham said the town board will set up a way to collect donations at their regularly scheduled meeting March 15.

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