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Chasing Windmills Love it or hate it, wind power - close to $1 billion worth - is changing the landscape in Western New York

SHELDON -Wyoming County, the farming community that's home to Letchworth State Park and the state's leading dairy region, now lays claim as the wind capital of Western New York.

Wind has brought a whole new industry to Wyoming County, with $655 million spent so far on three projects already built and at least three more on the books.

It's conceivable that within the next few years, the wind industry will have spent $1 billion on wind turbines in Wyoming County.

The only business with a billion next to it here now is the dairy industry, which produces 1.02 billion pounds of milk a year, making Wyoming County the state's top producer.

But along with the money here and elsewhere has come a change in the landscape in upstate New York. An industry has come to the farmland, and not everyone is happy.

People either seem to love the turbines or hate them. There is little common ground.

"I see communities being split down the middle because of the money coming in over the years," said East Aurora attorney Arthur Giacalone, who represents wind opponents in Sheldon.

"They've destroyed this town," said Sheldon resident Nadja Laska, who sued to stop the project with four of her neighbors.

Others say farmers have a right to do with their property as they see fit.

"This is just another crop the farmers, the landowners can harvest," Town Supervisor John Knab said. "It's beneficial to the whole town."

The High Sheldon Wind Farm is the latest of three recent wind projects in a county that has 10,000 more dairy cows than the 43,000 people who live here.

The numbers are impressive:

*Wind farms have already brought $2 million in direct annual payments to three Wyoming County towns, virtually eliminating town property taxes in Sheldon, Eagle and Wethersfield.

*Landowners are paid up to $8,000 a year for each turbine on their property.

*The Wyoming County Industrial Development Agency, which collects a one percent fee for the projects, has almost an embarrassment of riches. The agency, with a $300,000 annual budget, will collect between $5 million and $6 million in the next five years from the wind companies.

*Calculations on a court filing by Invenergy, the Sheldon wind developer, shows that the High Sheldon Wind Farm will generate nearly $20 million of electricity a year.

This is supposed to be part of the Green Revolution, an effort to wean New York and the rest of the nation from fossil fuels that despoil the environment and make the nation dependent on the volatile Middle East.

But modern wind turbines are not the picturesque windmills that farmers once used to draw water for their livestock.

>Where the mills are

These turbines are massive, nearly 400 feet tall with the blades. They're visible from miles away. They're taller than Buffalo's City Hall and dwarf the barns and silos that dot the landscape here.

The first of Sheldon's 75 wind turbines come into view on Route 20A just past the Byrncliff golf course, 10 miles east of the Village of East Aurora.

Another 67 turbines are already producing electricity south of here in Bliss, and 87 more are up and will soon start generating power in Wethersfield and Eagle.

Blades alone for these turbines are so large they recently caused a stir because they were too tall to travel on the Niagara Thruway and had to be routed through downtown Buffalo.

They're causing even more of a stir in Sheldon and elsewhere in the state, where opponents say the turbines are also generating dissension.

Critics say the turbines are noisy and a danger to birds and bats. They say the windmills ruin the landscape and bring a collection of ailments that a northern New York physician has labeled Wind Turbine Syndrome.

They also say that wind power is unreliable, because the wind does not blow all the time, and require fossil fuel-fired plants or hydropower plants to serve as backups to meet energy demands.

The wind industry counters each of those claims and issues fact sheets in the towns where they have projects. They say beauty is in the eye of the beholder, that turbines are no noisier than a kitchen refrigerator, that automobiles kill far more birds, and they dismiss the health claims.

And they also say that modern- day power grids have the capability to use wind power as a reliable source of energy.

A longtime dairy farmer in Sheldon, who asked not to be identified, has a single wind turbine on his property. The wind turbines do not bother him.

"You don't notice these power lines and telephone lines anymore," he said of the utility poles that pass by his home. "When they first went up, everyone thought they were ugly. The generation growing up now don't even notice them. That will be the same thing with these turbines."

Knab, the town supervisor, said Sheldon's wind law required Invenergy to bury all the power lines underground, avoiding the cluttered look in Bliss with its lines mounted on utility poles.

But Giacalone also points to at least five parts of Sheldon's wind law that were scrapped because of the wind company, including setbacks that would protect the view from Route 20A. And once the law was passed, he said, the wind company applied for and won variances.

New York has set a goal of producing 25 percent of its power from alternative sources by 2013, so the wind projects in Wyoming County and elsewhere in the state are just the beginning.

And that has people who look after the landscape worried.

"In certain parts of New York, you won't be able to take a drive without seeing one of these facilities up close or off on the horizon, or around the next bend," said Daniel MacKay, director of public policy for the Preservation League of New York State.

"At the very least," added MacKay, "that is a fundamental transformation of the upstate New York landscape, what is beloved about that landscape, what people seek refuge in that landscape for."

Farmers generally back the turbines, said Doug Berwanger, supervisor of Arcade and chairman of the Wyoming County Board of Supervisors.

"There are pros and cons with this as you can well imagine," he said. "Obviously, the county is primarily agricultural, farmers who have worked and lived here for so many years, they consider it a right of theirs, if they want to utilize their land for wind turbines. That's what they want to do.

"Do we have enough?" Berwanger asked. "I can't answer that, and I'm not going to say, yes we do, or no, we don't. It still remains up to the towns."

The Preservation League's MacKay and others think the state should regulate the placement of the turbines, rather than leaving it to small, rural towns.

Giacalone, the East Aurora attorney who represents wind farm opponents in Sheldon and a number of other towns, say the wind projects fit a pattern.

The wind companies, he said, decide where to develop and then approach large landowners and town officials to seal the deal before most of the town knows a project has been proposed.

Giacalone has won some and lost some in the wind battle, but he said the wind companies and the towns have the upper hand. His lawsuits are aimed at conflicts of interest, zoning violations, and making sure the state's environmental quality reviews are followed.

"It's hard for me to see the positive side of any industry when I see the sordid side of it," Giacalone said.

Asked to explain, he responded: "The backroom offers to landowners and officeholders before the public even knows what is coming into the community."

Attorney General Andrew Cuomo on July 15 launched an investigation into two wind companies doing business in New York, Noble Environmental and First Wind, after getting complaints in eight counties.

Noble, based in Essex, Conn., has built the wind projects in Bliss and Wethersfield, and First Wind, of Newton, Mass., owns the eight-turbine project on the site of the former Bethlehem Steel property in Lackawanna. The Sheldon High Wind Farm is being built by Invenergy, based in Chicago.

A Cuomo spokesman declined to comment on the investigation, but Cuomo said in announcing it that he was looking at improper dealings between the wind companies and local officials.

>Payments confidential

In Sheldon, Knab voted in favor of the wind project, even though opponents say his brother-in-law, dairy farmer Hans Boxler, has five turbines on his property.

"He's not really a brother-in-law," Knab said. "His wife and my wife are sisters. We grew up together as neighbors. In a small rural town like this, you know practically everybody in the town."

Berwanger, the head of the Board of Supervisors, said that because Boxler is the county's largest landowner, it would be hard for Invenergy to put up 75 turbines without including him.

Company and town officials say the payments by Invenergy to landowners are confidential, but an estimate of wind turbine royalty payments obtained by The Buffalo News shows that Boxler would collect $8,300 per turbine, or $41,500 a year.

That estimate, labeled "realistic" by Invenergy on its offer sheet, would be paid if the turbines produce 30 percent of their rated power. Payments range from $7,200 per turbine at 28 percent capacity to $10,100 for 32 percent.

Buffalo attorney Daniel A. Spitzer, a partner in Hodgson Russ, represents Invenergy, plus a number of other municipalities and wind companies. He said critics have it wrong.

"When you look at Wyoming County alone," said Spitzer, "you see that the application of home rule, by these three towns, by making their decisions of what was best for them, has eliminated $2 million in local taxes by the end of the year 2009. There's no other development out there," he said, "that is providing that kind of direct tax relief to local governments."

Rick Slowinski moved to Sheldon in 2002 from Cheektowaga with Lori Rovinson after they built their dream house and barn to house Rovinson's three Arabian horses and pony.

Slowinski said that elimination of town taxes is nice, but not worth the eight turbines he now sees from his back deck.

The town tax rate would be $6.30 per $1,000 in assessed valuation. That means someone with a house assessed at $100,000 saves $630 in taxes.

Both said they never would have built their home if someone had told them that wind turbines were coming.

Slowinski applied for a turbine so he could use it as a selling point to sell his home. He was dropped from the latest plan, and now his property sits 800 feet from the nearest one.

During construction, they heard a loud noise that split the drywall on a beam. They don't know what to expect once the turbines are powered up.

And now they don't know what to do with their home.

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