Sunday, September 26, 2010

Wind farm conflicts need addressing

State-required disclosure lists show a few dozen public officials in the region stand to gain thousands, even hundreds of thousands, of dollars from lease agreements with companies building wind turbines in their towns. There is so much wrong with this that it’s hard to know where to start.

New York state must go further than simply requiring disclosure and instead shift at least a portion of wind farm approvals to the county or state level. These projects are much too large for the “yes” or “no” decision to be left to small-town leaders when either these leaders or those close to them might stand to benefit financially.

The issue is parallel to that of the hydro-fracking controversy in the Southern Tier and Central New York. In each case, energy companies hope to utilize a natural resource in rural regions where jobs are scarce and incomes low. Some landowners stand to benefit mightily from lease agreements, while others may stew at not getting that opportunity. In either case, lack of an appropriate regulatory framework leads to risk of government officials acting in their own best interests instead of in the interests of their constituents.

That sentiment exists outside Lowville, where the mother of all wind farms in our region sits. Drive up Route 12 through and past Lowville along Route 177, and you will be staggered by the sheer number of turbines in the Maple Ridge — 195 of them in all. They’ve transformed the landscape in central Lewis County.

You’ll be equally staggered, however, by the windfall some officials in towns up that way are receiving. Fully 12 of them may earn a combined $7.5 million — or up to that amount — over the lifetime of the wind turbines. That’s an enormous amount of money, and not simply in the North Country.

It is impossible to believe that a leader in a small town full of residents with modest incomes isn’t going to be dazzled by an energy developer dangling the prospect of five-figure or six-figure checks. Human nature being what it is, we all dream of somehow hitting it rich. But once that lease offer is made, an official’s dreams of wealth could conflict with his neighbors’ hopes for their community.

In a small town, too, it’s not simply that the lease offer goes to a key official. It could go to the official’s brother, or nephew, or good friend. In any of these cases, a public official’s judgment is at risk of being compromised.

A larger question is that of public trust in government. In the town of Lowville, Gordon Yancey is upset that public officials, including his brother Edward Yancey, got lease agreements related to Maple Ridge. His view, that “they made their sweetheart, backdoor deals long before anything was made public,” can be cancerous in a community when large portions of the populace share it. If the governed have no faith in their leaders, or if they believe their leaders are in it only for themselves, then the very fabric of our democracy is damaged.

All of this is reason why approval of wind farm projects needs to be multi-layered, in hopes that county and state officials at more of a distance from the scene can show impartial judgment.

Transparency is fine, but the greater need is assurance to the public that projects were judged by individuals who do not have a vested interest in the outcome.

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