Cape Vincent, NY -- Across the St. Lawrence River from Cape Vincent, 86 windmills — each more than 400 feet high from base to blade tip — tower over Canada’s Wolfe Island.
They’ve been there less than a year, a preview of what could be in store for Cape Vincent if two proposed wind farms, totaling more than 100 turbines, are built.
Just as surely as the river divides the U.S. from Canada, the windmill plans have divided Cape Vincent.
On one side: supporters who see the windmills as a source of income for struggling farmers, tax revenue for the town and county, and jobs, however temporary, in a community whose economy is dependent on summer tourism and a state prison.
On the other: opponents, many of them summer residents, who see the turbines as a blight on the gateway to the Thousand Islands and a threat to wildlife, health and property values.
And in the middle: town officials who are trying to come up with a law to regulate wind development, even as questions about conflicts of interest have dogged every move. Two members of the five-person town board, and three members of the five-person planning board, either personally hold wind leases or have relatives with wind leases, meaning the leaseholders or their families stand to profit if the wind farms are built.
“It’s certainly tied the town up in knots,” said town attorney Mark Gebo (pronounced JEE-bo).
It has also energized the Cape’s anti-wind forces, led by the Wind Power Ethics Group.
“I think these folks have to recuse themselves,” said Clifford Schneider, retired from the state fishery in Cape Vincent and a WPEG member. “People should make decisions for this community without having this haze overhead.”
WPEG pressed the point at the ballot box, in court and in complaints to state Attorney General Andrew Cuomo.
Last summer, windmill opponents sat down with a representative of Cuomo to lay out their conflict of interest claims. Later in the year, he announced agreements with wind developers on a “code of conduct” that mandates disclosure of deals between developers and town officials and rules to limit their influence on local governments. Cuomo’s office “is aware of complaints regarding the Cape Vincent projects and we are reviewing them,” a spokesman said.
Then, in a hotly contested election in November, 10-year incumbent town supervisor Thomas K. Rienbeck was defeated by WPEG’s leader, Urban Hirschey. Hirschey won by 23 votes, aided by absentee ballots cast by seasonal residents who voted from their winter homes.
Cape Vincent is just one of many North Country communities grappling with big wind. More than 1,200 megawatts of wind power are on the drawing board in Jefferson, Lewis and St. Lawrence counties, from Galloo Island to the St. Lawrence River. In addition, the New York Power Authority is seeking proposals for 500 megawatts of offshore wind in the Great Lakes; Lake Ontario is one likely site.
Cape Vincent Councilman Donald Mason, a former dairy farmer who has a wind company lease, said he’s not influenced by it.
“At far as I’m concerned, I’m just doing what I think is best for the town,” Mason said. “It’s tough to have anything in this little town. There’s one way in — one way out. This is the best thing that’s come along that I can see in my lifetime.”
Opponents see the windfall from wind as short-term and shortsighted.
If the Cape Vincent wind farms are built, “the state of New York will be giving away one of its most beautiful areas based on a green agenda,” said Art Pundt, of Flagstaff, Ariz., a seasonal resident whose family has had property in Cape Vincent since 1949.
As the fight drags on, Pundt said, the damage to Cape Vincent grows deeper. “Neighbors don’t talk to neighbors. Businesses are afraid to speak up. Sociologically, wind has torn this town apart.”
One thing everyone in Cape Vincent can agree on is this: It’s windy.
Hirschey, 71, a retired manufacturing executive, has a waterfront home on the Lake Ontario side of town. He had a small wind turbine until it blew down — twice.
“I can attest there’s a lot of wind here,” he said.
The town is largely farmland, though the number of working farms can be counted on two hands, according to Rienbeck and Mason, who sold his cows six years ago.
It’s about 100 miles from Syracuse to Cape Vincent. The one way into town is north on Route 12E. Cresting a hill just over the town line, Wolfe Island’s windmills loom in the near distance. At night, their red lights blink to warn passing aircraft of their presence.
Tibbetts Point Light House — 69 feet high — guards Lake Ontario’s outlet into the St. Lawrence River.
The village of Cape Vincent hugs the riverfront. Turn right, and Route 12E becomes Broadway, lined with stores, restaurants, a post office and businesses that cater to boaters.
Turn left, and it’s three miles to Tibbetts Point along a road lined alternately with stately mansions and single-family homes, with views of the river and Wolfe Island’s turbines. The town’s year-round population is around 3,400, and grows by 8,300 when seasonal residents return in the warmer months.
The annual French Festival, around Bastille Day in July, celebrates the area’s heritage as the place where veterans of the Napoleonic Wars settled. The town’s historical museum occupies a stone building that served as a barracks for soldiers during the War of 1812.
Cape Vincent’s war over wind began around 2005. The U.S. affiliate of the Spanish energy company Acciona SA proposed the 79-megawatt St. Lawrence Wind Farm. Acciona originally planned to erect 130 turbines, but reduced that number to 53, said Peter Zedick, project development manager.
Around the same time, BP Wind Energy, a U.S. affiliate of British Petroleum, proposed a 140-megawatt project called Cape Vincent Wind Power Project, adjacent to the Acciona site but further inland. The number of turbines started at 140, but it is likely to be fewer since the turbines are expected to be bigger and a second phase is on hold, project developer James Madden said.
The developers signed up property owners to lease their land for the turbines and transmission lines. Zedick declined to say how many lease agreements Acciona has, or their value. Madden said BP has about $15 million in local contracts with 65 to 70 landowners.
Among town officials holding wind contracts are current Cape Vincent Town Board members Donald Mason and Marty Mason (no relation); former town board member Joseph Wood; Planning Board Chairman Richard Edsall; and Code Enforcement Officer Alan Wood. Town officials who are related to wind contract holders include Planning Board member Karen Bourcy and Andrew Binsley.
With leases in hand, the developers went to the town planning board for permission to build.
Residents worry about noise, birds, landscape
In New York, the siting of windmills is a local matter, subject to zoning laws and site plan review. The State Environmental Quality Review Act requires local governments to identify and mitigate the significant environmental impacts of the activity they are permitting.
The Cape Vincent Planning Board appointed itself lead agency for the SEQR studies.
Acciona and BP submitted lengthy environmental impact statements, enumerating all the ways the proposed windmills would affect birds, bats, roads, soil, noise and historic and cultural resources. They supplied photo simulations showing what the windmills would look like from various vantage points around the town.
The developers acknowledge their projects will have a cumulative impact on the region.
“Should all projects currently proposed or under consideration be constructed, the area in an approximately 13-mile radius of the town of Cape Vincent would include over 350 utility scale wind generating turbines each likely exceeding 390 feet in height,” said the St. Lawrence Wind study.
“While not continuously visible,” it continued, “wind-generating turbines would be dominant and widespread from local roadways, homes and various places of interest. Turbines would also be visible on the horizon from vantage points on Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River along approximately 50 miles of waterway, from Clayton west and south to Southwick State Park, Jefferson County.”
At public hearings, Cape Vincent residents aired concerns about turbine noise, the fate of migrating birds, the health effects of “shadow flicker” caused by the sun shining through rotating windmill blades and, not least, the radical transformation of the town’s landscape.
Councilman welcomes jobs, tax contributions
Supporters point to the economic impact the wind developments will have on the town.
According to the developers, each wind farm will create about 200 temporary construction jobs and five to 10 permanent jobs. The wind farms will invest hundreds of millions of dollars in leases, infrastructure, equipment, materials and labor. Madden said BP’s local tax impact alone would be more than $1 million a year.
“There’s a lot of money to be made from it for the town, county, school, landowners,” said Mason, the town councilman. “We have no industry here at all. We have summer people, thank God we have them, but our town has dropped right down. There’s one grocery store, one gas station, one bank, a couple of restaurants and that’s it.
“If these landowners and farmers can make a few bucks to keep their taxes paid, they won’t lose their land,” he said.
The economic argument doesn’t fly with Rob Aliasso, co-chairman of the Coalition for the Preservation of the Golden Crescent, an alliance of citizens groups from the Lake Ontario shoreline seeking to put the brakes on wind development.
“You can only look at the economic benefits by netting them out against other effects,” Aliasso said. “Let’s say Cape Vincent puts a project in. The development creates 20 full-time jobs and 200 construction jobs. How many jobs will be lost on the other side? How many people would sell their homes? What would happen to the tax base?”
Hirschey, who used to run a business, said the developers had yet to make the economic case for wind power, which is heavily subsidized by the state and federal government. “In this day and age, with an almost unlimited natural gas supply and hydropower available from Quebec, electricity is relatively cheap,” he said. “There are a lot less expensive ways to produce power than wind.”
Aliasso said “green fervor” surrounding wind power — a renewable resource that doesn’t pollute — obscures the negative impacts of industrial wind turbines in areas that are environmentally sensitive and depend on tourism.
“Nothing is entirely good in this world,” he said.
‘Wind law’ in the works
Shortly after his win, Hirschey said he hoped he could be a “healer” in the divided town.
At his first town board meeting Jan. 14, he proposed a moratorium on wind development. It was voted down, 3-2.
A committee of town officials and residents went back to work on a “wind law” to regulate placement of turbines and other issues, the outlines of which were agreed to Feb. 6.
Cape Vincent’s two wind farms are not close to being built. Acciona hopes to start construction on St. Lawrence Wind in 2011, Zedick said. BP’s Madden said 2012 would be “optimistic” considering the political climate in the town and the state.
“I really think that most of the people are trying to do just what they think is right. There’s a wide range of what people think is right,” said Gebo, the town attorney. “Wind has gotten to be emotional. It’s hard to have a logical discussion about it. It’s been a difficult struggle in Cape Vincent, for sure.”