Twelve public officials who sat on county and town boards in Lewis County stand to make a combined $7.5 million from the region’s largest wind-turbine project, government disclosure forms show.
And numerous other officials in Herkimer County stand to profit as well from new projects there, although not to the same extent, records show.
The lease arrangements have raised questions among local residents and good-government experts about potential conflicts of interest as wind-turbine farms are approved.
One person who feels that way is Gordon Yancey of the town of Lowville, who used to have a clear view of the Adirondacks stretching as far as the eye could see from his property on the edge of the Tug Hill plateau.
But in 2006, the sprawling Lewis County landscape became home to the Maple Ridge wind farm – a group of 195 wind turbines towering 400 feet high over the once undeveloped landscape in Lowville, Martinsburg and Harrisburg. Those communities are located along state Route 12 about one hour north of Utica.
Now, Yancey said all he sees are the massive white towers obstructing his view. He blames lease agreements between wind developers and public officials, one of whom is his brother, Edward Yancey, who sat on the Harrisburg Zoning Board of Appeals.
Edward Yancey stands to benefit to the tune of up to $1 million over the lifetime of the agreement, according to disclosure forms filed with the state by Iberdrola Renewables and Horizon Wind Energy, which co-own the project.
“They made their sweetheart, backdoor deals long before anything was made public,” Gordon Yancey said. “Of course, the boards pushed everything through.”
Edward Yancey could not be reached.
Disclose or face fine
A 2008 mandate from the state Attorney General’s Office requires wind companies to disclose the nature and scope of any municipal officer’s financial interest in a wind project or risk facing fines of as much as $100,000.
No companies have been penalized to date, according to the state Attorney General’s Office.
“In order to avoid even the appearance of impropriety, we publically disclose any relationship with a municipal officer or their relative,” Iberdrola spokesman Paul Copleman said.
Lise Bang-Jensen, senior policy analyst for the Empire Center for New York State Policy, said any move towards increased government transparency is admirable, but making sense of conflicts is more complex than writing them down.
“If you have a role on both sides of a project, that’s a clear conflict of interest,” Bang-Jensen said. “Putting it on a piece of paper and disclosing it, doesn’t make it legal.”
Many of the officials listed on the disclosure forms – including Harrisburg Town Supervisor Stephen Bernet, who stands to make $1 million – did not return calls last week.
One of those listed on the disclosure forms is Roger Grace, a Planning Board member in Pinckney. Maple Ridge wind farm spreads across Lowville, Harrisburg and Martinsburg, but Grace, who stands to make as much as $20,000 from the project, still is required to disclose his role in a neighboring town.
He said his role isn’t a concern, and he believes those involved have acted appropriately.
“I think everyone’s done a phenomenal job,” Grace said. “It’s always a battle, though. People that got money love them, and people that didn’t get money hate them. That’s all.”
‘Not acting objectively’
The issue of lease agreements between public officials and wind developers is burgeoning in Herkimer County, where the Hardscrabble wind farm is slowly rising.
The Herkimer County towns of Fairfield and Norway will soon be home to 37 turbines – seven of which are already standing.
In that project, five officials stand to make as much as $85,000 from the turbines that are expected to be up and running by the end of the year.
“For any municipal officers or their relatives with whom we have a relationship, we specifically request that the officers recuse themselves from a decision or vote that would in any way affect the development of a project or affect how the municipality treats wind power,” said Copleman, the Iberdrola spokesman.
Yet six years ago, when the Hardscrabble project was nothing more than a vague concept, questions arose as to why Fairfield Planning Board member Harold Robinson was voting on wind issues while he had an agreement with the wind company aiming to come to town, according to O-D archives.
“The Town Board is not acting objectively,” Fairfield Planning Board Chairman Peter Fishbein complained in 2004. “The board needs to acknowledge there are people who are worried about this and at least hear their concerns.”
Robinson, who stands to make as much as $20,000 from a lease agreement, did not return calls last week.
‘Won’t like the looks of things’
Other wind projects are brewing across the Mohawk Valley, including a plan from NorthWind and Power to build a farm of eight to 12 turbines on Dry Hill in Litchfield.
In that development, some residents have questioned the role played in the process by Litchfield Supervisor Wayne Casler, He is a regional controller at Barrett Paving Materials, which owns more than 100 acres of land on the southern end of Dry Hill.
Wind developers have said the paving company’s land won’t be considered, but the company could be chosen to supply materials for the project if it's approved.
From time to time in Lowville, Gordon Yancey hears rumblings of other wind farm in the works – like the one in Litchfield.
Each time, he said, he thinks back to the days before his business was surrounded by turbines. Oftentimes, the curious come knocking on his door to ask what his experience was like years before.
“What I tell people is ‘Educate yourselves because you can’t trust where anywhere else is coming from,’” Yancey said. “Ask every question you can. And when you do, you won’t like the looks of things either.”