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August 15, 2013

Wind farm approved in disputed vote

By Joe Mahoney The Daily Star
Cooperstown Crier

---- — RICHFIELD SPRINGS  — The Richfield Town Planning Board, for the second time in two years, voted Monday night to permit the six-turbine Monticello Hills wind farm to be constructed on the western edge of the town, but the validity of the vote was immediately questioned by Town Supervisor Fran Enjem.

Enjem said that Planning Board Chairman Donald Urtz should not have allowed an alternate member of the board, Dick Harris, to cast a vote.

With Harris in the mix, the resolution passed 4 to 1, with Janet Sylvester being the lone dissenter. To move forward, the project needed a “super majority” of the board in favor of it. Without the participation of Harris, the outcome would have been 3 to 1, shy of the level of support it needed to win approval.

Enjem cited a section of state General Municipal Law, which states that alternate members of planning votes may only vote in the event one of the regular members of such a panel must abstain because of a conflict of interest.

Enjem also noted that in order to become a full member of the Planning Board, the town board would have had to vote to install Harris in that capacity. That has not happened, he pointed out.

Enjem, clutching a copy of the law in one hand, raised his other hand just as the planners were taking up the controversial resolution in a Richfield Springs High School meeting room where opponents of the 492-foot wind turbines greatly outnumbered supporters. Enjem tried to convince the planners not to go forward with the vote, but though he is the town’s top elected official, he was not allowed to address the board.

The planning board’s attorney, David Merzig, who is also the town attorney, advised the planners to go forward with the vote, reasoning that if the validity of the vote is in dispute, it could be settled later.

By that point in the meeting, three state troopers had arrived at the school, summoned there at the behest of Urtz, who became flustered when several people in the audience loudly jeered him and other board members backing the project.

Rex Seamon, an organic dairy farmer who lives near the property where the turbines would be constructed, said he was disappointed with the planning board members who agreed to sanction the wind farm.

“The main reason we oppose this is health because of what it will do to both humans and livestock,” Seamon said. He said it has been demonstrated that milk production is lowered when cows are in close proximity to turbines, and there is a risk of pollution to aquifers.

As part of the review process, Otsego County Planner Karen Sullivan issued an approval of the project “with modifications,” including one urging town officials to ensure that the wind farm would be consistent with the “scenic byway” designation for U.S. Route 20.

Urtz said the planners had already run the project past state Department of Transportation officials, noting they raised no objections. Urtz also came to the meeting with scenic byway promotional brochure which referred to windmills as “tourism attractions.”

Urtz also noted: “Madison County had turbines on the front cover of their tourism brochure.”

Addressing concerns that the turbines could produce loud noises, board member Cynthia Andela said the developers have agreed to keep the noise level no higher than 40 decibels. She noted 40 decibels has the volume roughly equivalent to “normal living room conversation.”

Sylvester tried to find out what would be the consequence if noise levels are higher.

Said Andela: “If it’s over 40 decibels, the company has to mitigate it. It’s in the contact.”

Andela also said she was supporting the project because of what she called its economic benefits, noting that $150,000 a year would be pumped into the local economy.

The closest house to the turbines will be some 1,750 feet away from one of the devices.

More than 30 local residents filed a lawsuit against the board after it approved a permit for the project in late 2011. A court decision nullified that vote, leading to Monday’s action.

Enjem has balked at signing a community host agreement that lays out the conditions that the developers must follow while operating the turbines until their eventual decommissioning. Whether his refusal to sign the agreement will delay the project remains unclear.

The Monticello Hills project is being advanced by Ridgeline Energy of Albany. The company’s chief project developer, Patrick Doyle, said he was pleased that the board agreed to issue a new permit.

The company has highlighted the fact that the turbines would be located in a section of the town that already has high-voltage and medium voltage electric transmission lines as well as underground high pressure gas lines.