YATES – The 71 wind turbines proposed near Lake Ontario would be taller than the Washington Monument.
They would be the tallest in the nation, so they would be hard to miss.
But local residents see the prospect of turbines differently, and that has broken long friendships and created deep rifts in the two towns where they would rise.
“We’re in the fight of our lives here,” said John Riggi of Yates, who fears the character of his Orleans County town would be ruined if a state siting board approves the Lighthouse Wind project.
But to Charlie Lyndaker of Somerset, leasing his land for turbines means financial security for his Niagara County farm. He retired from milking cows 10 years ago and now rents out his farm for corn, beans and wheat.
“It’ll make the difference between making a profit or not,” said Lyndaker, who wears a camouflage baseball cap with an embroidered wind turbine.
Whether the turbines get built depends on a seven-member siting board, comprised mostly of people appointed by state leaders in Albany. The decision will be the first real test for the state board over a project drawing both support and intense opposition. And local residents question why outsiders are making a decision that will affect the two border towns in Orleans and Niagara counties.
The board will weigh the need for the project – the 200 megawatts of power it would generate could power 53,000 homes – and also take into account any health, economic and environmental effects on the local community.
Several dozen land owners, green energy proponents and organized labor groups back the project proposed by Apex Clean Energy, a Virginia power company.
Supporters say there’s no better place for it. Geographically, it’s sited correctly because the turbines – on the lake plain below the Niagara Escarpment – can catch wind off Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.
Politically, the project jibes with Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s call for half of New York State’s power to come from green energy by 2030 and to reduce the region’s “carbon footprint” in the shadow of Somerset’s AES coal plant.
Economically, Lighthouse Wind would bring an estimated $1.6 million in tax revenue to local governments and school districts, create construction and other jobs and pump money into the local economy through long-term lease payments to landowners.
“This is one of the best wind resources in the state,” said Taylor Quarles, Apex’s development manager.
But many opponents want no part of the Apex project.
Lakeside residents and others formed “Save Ontario Shores” to fight it. School districts, villages, towns and counties have gone on record against the project.
Health officials in both counties have warned about its effects. And, tourism officials oppose it, too.
The height of the proposed turbines is too big, they say, likely towering 600 feet or more.
The turbines’ proposed locations, some as close as a half-mile from Lake Ontario’s rocky shoreline, are too close to the lake and shoreline.
The opponents also cite potential hazards to human health, wildlife, the environment, agriculture, housing values, tourism and the local economy.
“It’s a nightmare,” said Betty Wolanyk, a long-time Somerset resident and Save Ontario Shores member.
The southwest wind
About two-thirds of the turbines for the Lighthouse Wind project would be erected on agricultural land in Somerset.
Apex officials say they have signed 100 leases with landowners covering some 9,000 acres in Somerset and Yates.
The precise locations and the turbine model won’t be known until Apex submits its application, expected this fall.
But Apex, in its preliminary scoping document, referred to a possibility of a turbine tip height of 615 feet, and said it was studying heights up to 650 feet.
That’s taller than the One Seneca Tower in downtown Buffalo.
Turbines of that size are more efficient and can better capture Lake Erie’s wind, the company said.
That’s what makes the Lake Ontario area so attractive to Apex.
“Meteorologists often think of the motion of the wind as fluid, much like a river,” said Drew Silverman, Apex’s regional energy assessment manager. “In the Lighthouse Wind area, Lake Erie and Lake Ontario ... act like a funnel collecting a strong southwest wind flow.”
The turbines being considered can operate in winds blowing between 7 mph and 55 mph, and they would spin between 7 and 15 times a minute.
Concrete foundations for the turbines could run 30 feet or more deep into the ground, according to the scoping statement. They would each require a land area of roughly one-half acre for development.
The earliest the Lighthouse Wind turbines would become operational is 2018.
Lighthouse Wind is one of Apex’s 55 wind projects across 25 states.
It’s one of three proposed projects along Lake Ontario’s shoreline. The other projects are in Stockbridge, east of Syracuse, and Galloo Island on the eastern end of Lake Ontario.
In late April, Apex announced it is pursuing another 200-megawatt wind project in the town of Barre in Orleans County.
Most of Apex’s projects remain in the proposal or development stages.
But seven have been completed since 2012. Five of those are in Oklahoma and one each in Illinois and Texas. The projects range from 98 to 300 megawatts.
All are now owned by other companies, but Apex manages five of them, company officials said.
“Wind energy is one of the healthiest forms of energy generation in the world,” said Quarles of Apex. “It releases no greenhouse gases, soot or carbon into the atmosphere. It also does not consume valuable fresh water or produce water pollution.”
Opponents pass among themselves maps showing the large parcels that have been leased to Apex. The parcels are shaded.
The unleased parcels on the map are in white – often surrounded by the shaded parcels.
The 101 acres owned by John and Betty Wolanyk on Haight Road in Somerset are among the unshaded parcels.
When handed a draft contract by Apex a couple years ago, the Wolanyk siblings thought long and hard about leasing their land.
For at least six months, they researched Apex’s proposal, reviewed the contract and talked to neighbors.
The Wolanyks have lived on the land since 1971 with their mother, Alice, 88.
“The more I read, the worse it got,” said Betty Wolanyk, who said at first she tried coaxing her brother into signing the 49-year lease.
“The company has all the benefits, the landowner has all the responsibilities,” Wolanyk said. “Now, I’m not just opposed, I’m actively fighting it.”
Wolanyk, like dozens of other residents in Somerset and Yates counties, joined “Save Ontario Shores,” the citizen’s group opposed to Apex’s plan.
Opponents worry that the turbines will affect their health and the environment.
“No one knows how this is going to impact us,” said Pam Atwater, president of Save Ontario Shores. “We’re kind of living in a big experiment.”
Donald Stoll, a Somerset resident, added, “What they’re doing is using us as guinea pigs.”
Opponents talk about shadow flicker. When the turbines move, they creates a repeated shadow flicker, which can be disruptive to those with ADHD and other conditions.
The repeated “whoosh” sound can disrupt people. And the inaudible infrasound waves created by turbine rotation has been linked to insomnia and other health ailments suffered by those living close to turbines.
“The sound carries tremendously because of our terrain,” Atwater said.
But Quarles, the Lighthouse Wind development manager, discounted the health worries.
“Over 17 independent reviews of the existing science on wind energy and health have reached that same conclusion: There is no epidemiological link between properly sited wind projects and human health,” Quarles said.
Duane Langendorfer, a 79-year-old farmer, lives near the Wolanyks. He signed a lease with Apex.
“I figure it’s the coming thing,” Langendorfer said.
A second-generation farmer at Barker’s Lazy L Dairy Farms, Langendorfer was born in a brick house on the property in 1937.
He’s not worried wind turbines will ruin the property he was born on and farmed for 57 years.
“The people who are in opposition to it, it’s the same old thing: ‘not in my backyard,’ ” Langendorfer said.
Apex officials acknowledge their opponents, but maintain local support from landowners makes the project possible.
“We do not have, or use, the power of eminent domain,” Quarles said. “We can only locate wind facilities in areas where local landowners want to see it happen.”
Even before a single turbine has been built, the project has proved destructive, said Riggi, the former Save Ontario Shores president who rode an opposition platform onto the Yates Town Board last fall.
“There are family members and friends who don’t speak any more because of this,” Riggi said. “It’s disgusting what’s going on.”
What most annoys opponents and local government officials is that they don’t get to decide if the turbines get built.
Under the Power of New York Act of 2011, the siting of electrical generation facilities of 25 megawatts or more rests in the hands of a seven-member state board, rather than local governments.
The law says two of the siting board members must live in the area. The remaining five are state officials.
The siting board for Lighthouse Wind project includes:
• Audrey Zibelman of the state Public Service Commission, who serves as the board chairperson;
• Louis A. Alexander, an alternate for Basil Seggos, the acting commissioner of the state Department of Environmental Conservation;
• Dr. Howard A. Zucker, the state Department of Health commissioner;
• John B. Rhodes, an alternate for Richard L. Kauffman, the chair of state Energy Research and Development Authority;
• Howard Zemsky, the commissioner, president and CEO of Empire State Development;
• Mary Catherine Orr, an ad hoc member from Somerset;
• Russell Martino, an ad hoc member from Yates.
The idea behind the legislation forming the siting board is to remove undue influence that mega power companies could exert over small municipal boards and eliminate the temptation for public corruption.
Bickering over the spirit of the law is not new.
When draft legislation for siting power plants first arose in 2007, it raised the ire of municipal officials, who said it would strip them of home rule decisions.
At the time, then-State Sen. Dale M. Volker, a Depew Republican, tried to allay their fears.
“This process is really about nuclear plants, coal plants,” Volker told The Buffalo News in 2007. “It’s not really about windmills.”
He added: “I don’t think either house is going to go for an overall state decision on windmills. That’s going to be decided by locals and should be. That’s never been a question.”
But the intent of the law changed, and within four years, the Power Act turned over control of siting wind projects to the state board.
“Any time you take the population out of the equation, that’s not fair,” said Donald Stoll, a Somerset resident. “They’re just dumping on the little people.”
Riggi, the Yates town board member, said what’s happening in his community should be a cautionary tale to others across the Buffalo Niagara region.
“It eliminates the ability of the town to self-govern,” Riggi said. “That’s why people need to be concerned.”
Some local municipal officials believe the law was passed under intense pressure from green power industry lobbyists as a way to circumvent local opposition.
Others, like Riggi, go so far as to suggest its passage might not have been on the up-and-up, citing former Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Senate Majority Leader Dean G. Skelos, both recently convicted on public corruption charges.
“Of course, it’s crossed my mind,” said James Simon, an associate dean at Genesee Community College who won a write-in campaign for Yates town supervisor last fall.
“Isn’t it unfortunate we’re asking that? We have real questions,” Simon said. “Perception is reality in some cases.”
Daniel Engert, the Somerset town supervisor, called the siting board “a kangaroo court.”
No date has been set for the siting board to make a decision. The application must be filed first.
When that happens, the process demands more from developers than many realize, said Quarles, Apex’s development manger.
Developers must submit evidence proving a public necessity for the power. And, research and studies are necessary to prove a project’s safety to human health, wildlife and the environment before a project application gets approved.
“It’s a system the towns and landowners and everybody has to live with, like it or not,” Quarles said. “It is an extremely thorough and comprehensive process which really puts the burden of proof on the developer.”
The siting board will meet to discuss the application and ultimately decide whether the Lighthouse Wind project will be built.
The project will essentially be the first statewide test of the revised law creating the siting board.
Another wind turbine project proposed near Cassadaga in Chautauqua County is further along in the pipeline, but it has not been controversial.
That’s far from the case along the Lake Ontario shoreline, where many favor rescinding the law.
“This is not a ‘NIMBY’ issue. This is a state issue,” said Kate Kremer, the vice president of Save Ontario Shores. “It opens up our state for sale to the highest bidder.”