MICHIGAN WIND FARM COST A FAMILY ITS HEALTH, HOME
By Emily Le Coz & Lucille Sherman
Cary Shineldecker awoke in a panic.
His heart pounded as he raced through his house, flipping on light after light, in search of the intruder he would never find.
The middle-aged father of two knew his fear was irrational, but it hijacked every sense in his body. He finished checking his house and yard anyway, then returned to bed where he lay awake for hours, angry.
This had become an almost nightly ritual since Thanksgiving 2012, when 56 industrial turbines in the Lake Winds Energy Park started spinning outside Shineldecker’s home in rural Mason County, Michigan.
The closest loomed less than 1,200 feet from their door.
The towering structures generate low-frequency pulsations that people have described as a “feeling or presence,” something that is “felt rather than heard.”
It’s this eerie sensation that Shineldecker said stirred him from his slumber night after night. It’s the invisible intruder he felt was lurking in his home.
And like hundreds of other people living near wind turbines, he blamed these pulsations for not only his sleep disturbances but a cascade of other health problems also.
The wind industry denies turbines cause health problems. In interviews with GateHouse Media, wind company officials and representatives of American Wind Energy Association cited numerous studies supporting that stance – most recently a 2014 Health Canada study that found no direct link between turbine noise and reported illnesses.
But the same study also found wind turbines “highly annoy” about one in 10 people, especially those living closest to the structures and those exposed to turbine noises exceeding 35 decibels.
It said that annoyance is “statistically related” to reports of migraines, tinnitus, dizziness and high blood pressure.
These are the same symptoms that Shineldecker and his wife, Karen, recorded in a daily diary detailing problems they said didn’t exist before the Lake Winds Energy Park.
“This morning was horrible,” Karen wrote on April 4, 2013. “The turbine #20 was so loud and the thumping was unbelievable. My eyes and ears are pounding. My headaches are intense.”
Karen, a middle-school science teacher started grinding her teeth at night; she had to wear bite splints. Cary, an engineer, started losing concentration during the day; he was demoted at his job.
They took sleeping pills and anti-anxiety medication. They moved their bedroom into the basement to hide from the effects, but they still couldn’t escape.
“It’s like a dripping faucet in your bedroom, or someone tapping their fingernails next to you or calling your name and shaking your shoulder, night after night,” Cary said.
Michigan-based Consumers Energy owns Lake Winds. Company spokesman Terry DeDoes declined several requests to answers questions for this story, but he emailed a written statement that touted the company’s renewable energy projects and community engagement.
“We have found that local residents and businesses appreciate the jobs, cleaner energy, economic investment and income associated with Consumers Energy’s renewable energy projects,” DeDoes’ statement read, in part. “These investments in sustainable energy demonstrate our dedication to leaving our communities and environment better than we found them.”
The Shineldekers didn’t suffer alone. Consumers Energy received 128 complaints about its wind farm in the first year alone, according to Mason County records. Half reported sound problems and health issues. The others complained about shadow flicker, glare, signal interruption and the red aircraft warning lights that blink at night.
Mason County officials launched their own investigation into some of the problems and determined several of the turbines violated the county noise ordinance. Eleven months after the project started, the county ordered Consumers Energy come into compliance.
The company initially challenged the county’s ruling but eventually agreed to reduce the operating speeds of seven turbines, including the ones near the Shineldeckers.
That was in mid-2014, shortly before the Shineldeckers moved away.
FROM RUMORS TO REALITY
The Shineldeckers had lived in their two-story farmhouse since 1995. They bought the property and its surrounding 16 acres when their two boys were young and could romp among the rolling hills and apple orchards.
But more than a home, it was an investment. The family poured countless hours and tens of thousands of dollars into the property. They renovated their old farmhouse, dug a fishing pond out back, added a greenhouse and built a workshop.
The Shineldeckers paid off their mortgage around the time their sons graduated high school, and they looked forward to relaxing and enjoying the fruits of their labor.
Then, in July 2010, they saw something in the local newspaper about a proposed wind farm.
Consumers Energy representatives knocked on their door soon afterward. They wanted the Shineldeckers to sign an agreement, Cary and Karen said. The agreement would let them place turbines closer to the couple’s property line than the county ordinance allowed.
The Shineldeckers declined. They didn’t oppose the wind farm, they said, but didn’t want it near their land, either.
At the time, the couple said they didn’t know where Consumers Energy planned to place its turbines. The company hadn’t publicly announced its exact locations, which is typical of most wind project developments that span the course of several years and rely on a patchwork of lease agreements.
But soon a neighbor found a list of locations from the Federal Aviation Administration. The agency must approve construction of all structures over 200 feet tall, and Consumer Energy’s turbines would reach more than twice that.
The FAA list showed more than a dozen of the 56 proposed turbines within one mile of the Shineldeckers’ home.The closest would be less than a quarter mile from their bedroom window.
That’s when the couple decided to do their research. They not only read about industrial wind farms, but called people who lived among the turbines. The Shineldeckers wanted to know about their experiences. Some of what they heard concerned them.
People they spoke to complained about health problems and loud noises, Cary recalled. Several of them advised the Shineldeckers to protect themselves by seeking greater setbacks and stricter decibel limits.
A setback is the minimum distance between a turbine and a property line – or in some cases, an occupied dwelling. A decibel limit is the maximum sound a turbine can generate when measured from a property line – or in some cases, an occupied dwelling.
The county’s setback at the time was two times the height of the turbine – which in the case of Lake Winds Energy Park would be 952 feet – and its sound limit was 55 decibels.
Along with other concerned neighbors, the Shineldeckers formed a group called the Citizens Alliance for Responsible Renewable Energy. The alliance drafted an ordinance amendment in late 2010 and submitted it to the county.
The proposed amendment sought a setback of one-and-a-quarter mile, a 40-decibel sound limit, and a complete ban on shadow flicker – a strobe-like effect created when the sun passes behind spinning turbine blades. The county took it into consideration but didn’t adopt it.
Meanwhile, the Shineldeckers hired acoustician Robert Rand to study the proposed wind development in relation to their house. Rand returned his findings in June 2011 with a warning.
“I wish I had better news for you,” Cary recalled Rand telling him.“You and your family will be impacted significantly from the turbines. In fact, you’ll likely have trouble finding a quiet place to rest in your home.”
Less than a month later, the county approved a land-use permit to Consumers Energy that maintained the existing setbacks and allowed 10 hours annually of shadow flicker per property.
It lowered the decibel limit to 45 – a small victory for the citizens’ group.
The chairman of planning commission at the time – Ralph Lundberg – had a contract with Consumers Energy to host several turbines on his property. Lundberg did not vote on the permit.
LOSS OF FRIENDS, REPUTATION
The Shineldecker’s battle against the project came at a cost.
Lifelong friends who stood to gain financially from the wind farm stopped speaking to them, they said. Many members of their church also signed lease agreements, and the Shineldeckers said they soon felt unwelcome there. They stopped attending.
Then one night someone on snowmobiles raced through their yard, grazing by the outdoor dog kennel. The next morning, two of the family’s beagles were sick. An emergency vet visit revealed a lethal dose of rat poison. One of the dogs died from it, veterinarian Leslie Paxton confirmed.
Although they can’t prove it, the Shineldeckers believe the snowmobilers intentionally poisoned their pets in retaliation for the family’s outspoken opposition to the wind farm.
“What cowardly person picks on an innocent animal to make a point because you’re mad because I don’t agree with you?” Karen said, wiping away tears. “You’re killing lives over, what, $7,000 a turbine?”
Landowners received a minimum $7,200 annually to host a wind turbine, according to a Consumers Energy document. The company also offered money to residents living near turbines but who didn’t host one.
The Shineldeckers said they were offered a similar deal but refused it.
Despite the controversy, the couple continued to speak out – especially after Lake Winds began operations. Cary in particular started sharing the family’s experience with other communities. He traveled, talked about his health issues and recommended tighter regulations.
He soon hit the radar of wind developers elsewhere. And he faced their criticism, too.
In December 2016, a wind company executive singled him out at a meeting several states away.
Mike Blazer of Chicago-based Invenergy claimed to know Shineldecker’s medical history. He told a crowd in Clear Lake, South Dakota, that Shineldecker’s health woes stemmed from alcohol use, obstructive sleep apnea and an irregular heartbeat – not wind turbines.
Blazer shared the alleged information at a December 2016 city meeting about his company’s proposed wind farm. He did it to quell fears about wind turbines and to provide “an example of the impact of the type of misinformation that is spread by wind opponents,” Blazer said in an email.
Shineldecker said he was stunned to learn about the incident from an attorney who attended the meeting. He said he has neither sleep apnea nor alcohol problems and never received a diagnosis for those problems.
He said he did drink alcohol in order to fall asleep many nights during the two years he lived with the turbines.
“All I ever had to go on was my integrity and honesty and work ethic,” Shineldecker said, “and then to be belittled and treated like some whack-job psycho liar is kind of unbelievable.”
Cary and Karen Shineldecker said they knew immediately when Lake Wind Energy Park started operations.
They could hear it at first – loud whistling and whooshing noises coming from the nearest turbines. It was Thanksgiving, 2012, and they said they couldn’t believe how noticeable it was.
Then they could feel it – thumping vibrations that resonated through the walls of their home like bass-heavy music from a distant, passing car.
At first, the Shineldeckers said they were annoyed. Then they developed headaches, ear aches and pressure behind their eyes. Soon they couldn’t sleep. None of this happened before the wind farm, they said.
The couple described it as Chinese water torture – bearable in the moment but insufferable over time.
“You go months and months and months without sleep, and pretty soon, you’re not even the person you recognize,” Cary said. “I literally broke down and cried in front of people, and I’m not proud to say that.”
Cary got so distracted and exhausted that he started making mistakes at work. He couldn’t remember simple things, like his email password. After a few months of this, he said he got demoted.
Karen was prescribed anti-anxiety medication and a bite splint after her dentist found that four of her teeth were loose from grinding them at night.
One day when they both had excruciating headaches, they said they set a bowl of water in the window and watched it ripple whenever the blades on the nearest turbine passed the tower.
“It’s no wonder our eyes, which are like little water balloons, and brain, which is floating around in water, when the pressure changes and you look at the water rippling in the bowl,” Cary said, “that’s what it’s doing to your brain and your chest and your eyes, that nonstop pulsation of energy.”
The couple said the effects were even worse inside the greenhouse. The thin walls amplified the effects of the turbines and made it sound like a helicopter was landing inside.
“Whoomp, whoomp, whoomp,” Karen said. “You know how it sounds when someone in a car rolls down one window but the other ones are rolled up? It’s like that.”
Karen stopped going in the greenhouse and eventually quit gardening altogether. The couple also stopped spending time in the main part of their house. They realized they felt better in the basement with its thick walls that blocked the sound and vibrations.
Soon they decided to sleep down there, too. They spent every night in the basement for two years.
FORCED TO LEAVE
The Shineldeckers had listed their house for sale in 2011, after realizing they were losing the battle against Lake Winds. They had it appraised that year for $260,000.
But they got no offers and kept dropping the price over the next four years.
In early 2015, the family accepted an offer on the house for $139,000 and sold the surrounding acreage separately for $40,000 – a total 30 percent loss on the original asking price.
“It was emotionally devastating to be forced out of your house,” Cary said. “We moved to that house when our oldest son was 5 years old. It was a really nice place to live and raise a family.”
The house belongs to a Jackie and Jonathan Visscher now. The Visschers said they barely notice the turbines. They don’t cause them headaches or any other problem, as far as they can tell.
“I rarely hear the turbines,” Jackie Visscher said while standing in her driveway. “But we have eight kids, so we’re up at night anyway.”
But the turbines hum quieter now than when the Shineldeckers lived there. After the county found Consumers Energy violated its noise regulations, the company has been operating seven of its turbines at reduced speeds. It started in mid-2014 – a few months before Cary and Karen moved out.
“Before the court order to keep them under a certain decibel, you couldn’t even sit out there and have a conversation,” said Toni Britton, sipping coffee on her porch across the street from the Visschers.
She and her husband, Ed, said they also suffered headaches and sleepless nights when the equipment operated at full capacity. It’s better now, they said, but they fear the court order will expire and leave them helpless.
“I thought about cutting them down with a chainsaw,” Ed said. “They’re the worst thing you could put in a residential neighborhood.”
Other neighbors also complained about the turbines. Several of them joined a lawsuit against Consumers Energy in 2013. Along with the Shineldeckers, they claimed the wind farm affected their health and dropped their property values.
The company denied the claims in court records, but it ultimately settled with the residents less than two years later for an undisclosed sum.
Cary and Karen said the settlement provided some closure but will never replace what they lost.
The Shineldeckers moved four miles away from the project, in a log cabin on a small lake visited daily by bald eagles and Canada geese. They no longer see or hear the turbines, but the experience still haunts them.
“I’ve lost a lot of faith in human nature,” Cary said. “I used to trust people without reservation.”
In the five years since Lake Winds Energy Park went online, the Shineldeckers have tried to restore their sense of normalcy. Karen is gardening again. Cary was promoted at work. They spend evenings on the porch gazing at the unspoiled vista of their rural property.
Karen no longer wears a bite splint; she stopped grinding her teeth shortly after moving away from their farmhouse. The couple also tossed their sleeping pills; they say they no longer need them.
And, in a strange twist, Cary was appointed to the same governmental body that had ignored his earlier zoning recommendations. In September 2013, he was sworn in as the newest member of the Mason County Planning Commission. He also now serves on the county’s Zoning Board of Appeals.
The commission since has amended its zoning ordinance to require a greater setback for industrial turbines. Instead of a distance equal to twice the height of the structures, the commission doubled it to four times the height.
Cary smiled when he considered the irony.
“My story’s not unique in any way shape or form,” Cary said, “other than I fought and I got my ass kicked and I lived to tell about it.”
COMMUNITIES FIGHT WIND FARMS, FACE PUSHBACK
By Emily Le Coz & Lucille Sherman
Communities that oppose wind farm developments through rule changes or referendums sometimes face deep-pocketed pushback from energy companies determined to build their projects.
At least a dozen communities have faced legal challenges. Others have battled public-relations campaigns and lobbyists.
Even some places that initially welcomed wind farms later found themselves locked in litigation with energy companies over financial or regulatory disputes.
“It’s such a political game, and they are very powerful,” said Kim Spady, attorney for Hinton, Oklahoma, one of the towns fighting a lawsuit filed by Florida-based NextEra Energy Resources.
NextEra sued Hinton in February, less than one month after the town passed an ordinance declaring industrial wind turbines within two miles of its borders a public nuisance.
The company claimed in its lawsuit that Hinton inappropriately “intended to restrict and curtail” its proposed projects in the area – two wind farms totaling 156 turbines called Minco Wind IV and Minco Wind V.
NextEra already spent millions of dollars to lease land and prepare for construction, the company argued, and Hinton changed the rules in the middle of the game.
Hinton denied that charge. It said it followed proper procedure in passing its ordinance, which was designed protect residents and preserve land for future housing developments.
Officials also said they sought the two-mile buffer months before passing the ordinance, and that NextEra agreed to it.
“But when we asked for that in writing, they refused,” said Town Administrator Matthew Mears, who was at the meeting. “They wanted it to be a handshake deal. When we insisted on it, they left. So that’s why we passed the ordinance. It basically puts into writing what everybody already agreed to in that meeting.”
NextEra spokesman Bryan Garner declined to comment about ongoing litigation, saying the court documents speak for themselves. The documents do not address the meeting described by Mears.
A judge dismissed NextEra’s case, but allowed the company to file an amended complaint. That case is still pending.
Hinton, a tiny community of less than 3,200 people, has spent more than $20,000 so far fighting NextEra’s court challenge, Spady said. “They’re not good partners,” Spady said. “They don’t care about local folks.”
NextEra also sued two Michigan townships this year, claiming a systematic effort by newly elected officials to kill its proposed wind farm development. A federal judge ruled in favor of one of the townships in November; the other case is still pending.
Clinton County, Missouri, also got sued after banning industrial wind turbines. The move jeopardized NextEra’s plans to develop its 201-megawatt Osborn Wind Farm.
NextEra claimed in its lawsuit that Clinton County mishandled the permitting process and acted outside of its powers in approving the prohibition. The company built the entire project in neighboring DeKalb County instead.
Clinton County’s insurance policy has picked up the tab for legal fees in the ongoing case, but that could change, said Clinton County Presiding Commissioner Wade Wilken Jr.
“I believe they intended to bleed us dry so we couldn’t fight this, and they would win,” Wilken said. “They try to bully counties into spending millions of dollars in legal fees.”
Mason County, Michigan, green-lighted a wind farm nearly seven years ago amid promises it would operate quietly and generate a steady cash flow for the local coffers.
But the rural community since has spent some $200,000 fighting legal claims related to the Lake Winds Energy Park, said Mason County Administrator Fabian Knizacky.
Lake Winds went online in November of 2012. Eleven months later, the Planning Commission determined its turbines violated county noise standards and ordered it come into compliance.
Michigan-based Consumers Energy, which owns the project, challenged that finding in court. The company lost, but not before costing the county thousands of dollars in legal fees, Knizacky said.
Consumers Energy also filed claims before the state Tax Tribunal challenging the county’s demand for the tax revenues the company had projected.
Before winning the county’s approval for its wind farm, Consumers Energy estimated the project would generate $29 million in property tax revenues for the county, townships and special districts during the first two decades of operations alone, according to a company document. But after the county approved Lake Winds, the state changed its depreciation schedule for wind turbines, thereby reducing their taxable value.
When Consumers Energy decided to use the new schedule to reduce its tax payments to the community, Mason County balked.
Consumers Energy would pay all taxing jurisdictions approximately $605,000 less in 2016 and approximately $907,000 less in 2017 alone, Knizacky said.
“The way it works is you set the initial value of the turbine, which we’re in agreement on, but we disagree about how much value they’ve lost over the years,” Knizacky said.
“Under state law, they can depreciate down to 30 percent of their original value,” he said. “What we’re arguing over is a matter of how long it takes to get to that 30 percent. Consumers Energy says they have depreciated more than we say.”
Also in dispute is whether Consumers Energy can use the 30 percent federal Investment Tax Credit to even further lower the value of its turbines.
“For example if they spent $100 million on the turbines and the federal government gave them $30 million in tax credits, they want to say they should only be assessed at $70 million,” Knizacky said. The county disagrees.
Consumers Energy declined to comment for this story.
NextEra and Detroit-based utility DTE had similar tax disputes before the same tribunal regarding their own wind farms, but NextEra withdrew its claims in September.
“At NextEra Energy Resources, we want the communities where we do business to benefit from our projects,” the company said in a statement. “We also want them to know what they can expect to collect in tax revenue and have certainty in their budgeting processes.”
The wind industry also spends its vast wealth in local, political campaigns.
Two large companies gave more than a quarter-million dollars combined this year to promote a pair of Michigan county referendums that would have paved the way for their projects.
NextEra had plans to install 60 turbines as part of its Huron Wind Energy Center; DTE wanted to erect 70 of them for its Filion Wind Park.
The Huron County Board of Commissioners approved plans for the projects in late 2016, but opponents collected enough signatures to force referendums on both those board actions, placing them in the hands of voters.
In the months leading up to the May special election, NextEra donated $341,000 to a campaign committee called Say YES to Huron’s Future. DTE donated $33,030 to a committee called Citizens for Fair Government.
The sole committee against the referendum, Huron County Wind Resistance, received just $3,715 – all from individual donors.
Voters overwhelmingly rejected both the companies’ projects.
Michigan, which already hosts 25 wind farms, has become a recent battleground for the industry as weary residents fight back against plans for more turbines. In addition to the referendums in Huron County, voters in Sanilac and Tuscola counties this year also approved stronger zoning requirements for industrial turbines.
Communities are forced to take matters into their own hands, since state and federal regulations on industrial wind farms are scarce, said Oklahoma State Rep. Earl Sears, a Republican whose state has seen one of the nation’s largest proliferations of wind farms.
With more than 40 wind farms totaling some 3,500 turbines, Oklahoma ranks third nationwide in wind energy production, according to the American Wind Energy Association.
Sears, who gets regular calls from constituents concerned about proposed wind farms, has introduced several pieces of legislation to regulate the industry.
The wind industry fights him on every one of them, he said. Twenty lobbyists tied to the wind industry are actively registered in Oklahoma, state records show.
One of Sears’ bills would have required that industrial turbines stand no closer than a quarter-mile from property lines to protect residents from their noise, shadow flicker and low-frequency pulsations. Sears said he initially set the distance at a half-mile but faced such backlash from the wind industry that he felt forced to lower it.
That bill died. “They fought me tooth and toenail,” Sears said.
Another bill required that wind farm developers hold public meetings to inform residents of their plans. Sears said he did it to combat the perceived secretiveness of the projects.
That bill passed despite pushback.
The American Wind Energy Association has spent nearly $17 million on federal lobbying efforts alone in the past decade, according to the U.S. Senate Office of Public Records.
Individual wind companies also have their own lobbyists. NextEra alone has spent some $54.5 million on lobbying since 1998 on issues like the renewal of federal subsidies for wind. And its PAC spent over $1.6 million in the 2015-2016 election cycle.
Sears bristles at the irony that the tax credits his state gives these companies help fund the lobbyists they hire to fight his bills.
Oklahoma has four wind subsidies that cost the state government more than $316 million last year alone, according to a report from the state treasurer. Three of them – an ad valorem tax exemption for new construction, a zero emission tax credit and an investment tax credit – all will end this year.
Sears was among the lawmakers supporting the end of those subsidies. The wind industry fought those efforts, too, he said.
Now, he and his colleagues want to pass legislation restricting wind farm development in the path of military flight training missions. The state has several Air Force bases whose training routes already face degradation due to turbines from existing wind farms.
Continued degradation could threaten those bases, which provide enormous economic benefit to the state, said Republican State Rep. Charles Ortega. He fears the federal government could close one or more of those bases if they can’t conduct flight operations due to turbines. Again, though, the wind industry is fighting the move.
“In the oil industry in Oklahoma, we have reams of books of rules and regulations on what they can and can’t do. But with wind, you just don’t have that much,” Sears said. “It’s all by gentlemen’s agreement. And therein lies the rub – every time we try to do something on wind regulations, the wind industry comes up to hire lawyers to fight rules and regulations. They want none.”
CONFLICTS OF INTEREST ABOUND IN WIND FARM PROPOSALS
By Emily Le Coz & Lucille Sherman
Elected officials affecting the fates of wind farm developments in their communities often stand to benefit personally from the projects, raising concerns about conflicts of interest.
In counties and towns across America, government officials or their family members hold private land agreements worth anywhere from a few hundred to tens of thousands of dollars should the projects develop.
Ethics laws vary from state to state, but many require only that elected officials disclose their personal interest in a project, not abstain from voting on it. In community after community, these leaders vote to advance wind farms even as they stand to profit personally.
Chicago-based Exelon signed lease agreements with 10 Michigan landowners serving as elected officials in two communities where it proposed a development, public records show.
Those officials, from Bridgehampton and Marion townships, then voted favorably on ordinance amendments and an overlay district to advance the $250 million Michigan Wind 3 wind farm, meeting minutes show.
The actions did not constitute a conflict of interest, officials from both townships said.
“The board did everything legal,” said Arnold McVittie, who was Marion Township supervisor until March of last year. “We consulted with our attorney, and we did everything by the book.”
Planning Commission Chairman Mary Bokach said the conflict of interest applied only to land-use approvals, which the board did not vote on, according to December 2015 meeting minutes.
Exelon’s project stalled after residents in both townships overturned the zoning amendments in a pair of August 2016 referendums. Exelon had sued Bridgehampton that same year to force a vote on its request for a special-use permit, but it lost the case.
Florida-based NextEra Energy signed land deals with a trio of elected officials in nearby Ellington and Almer townships in Michigan, where it planned to develop the Tuscola III wind farm, public records show.
At least one of those officials, Ellington Supervisor Duane Lockwood, helped pass an ordinance amendment to advance the wind farm, according to minutes from a January 2015 meeting.
Lockwood recused himself from further action after community members complained, but he told the local newspaper he saw no conflict of interest.
“I have leases, and that’s my own business,” The Tuscola County Advertiser quoted him as saying in March 2016.
Voters voted Lockwood out of office later that year, along with the other two officials – Almer Township Supervisor Jim Miklovic and Trustee Michael Putnam. Miklovic and Putnam had recused themselves from wind-related decisions, minutes show.
Newly elected township officials later voted to block the wind farm, prompting NextEra to sue both communities. A federal judge ruled in favor of one of the townships in November; the other case is still pending.
In Kingman County, Kansas, two county commissioners voted on a special-use permit for Flat Ridge 2 Wind Farm while having leased land to the project, county minutes show.
The commissioners – John Steffen and Earn Reno – also previously received lease payments from the project’s owner, London-based BP, a 2010 Kansas Ethics Commission document shows.
The Ethics Commission found no conflict of interest in the decision.
The 294-turbine wind farm started operating in 2012. It is the largest in Kansas.
Several wind developers, including NextEra, told GateHouse Media they follow all applicable state and local laws regarding lease agreements and conflicts of interest.
Others, like Invenergy, include contract language requiring public officials with lease agreements to recuse themselves from voting on matters relating to the wind farm. If they can’t recuse themselves, they must at least announce the existence of the agreement.
Conflicts of interest concerns were so rampant in New York that then-Attorney General Andrew Cuomo launched an investigation into two offending companies that culminated in the creation of a Wind Industry Ethics Code in 2008. The code prohibits conflicts of interests between municipal officials and wind companies.
It also requires wind companies to report the names and financial interest of any municipal officer with a lease.
In the years since that mandate, firms have reported numerous such leases worth millions of dollars in personal interest combined.
Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, a prolific wind farm developer, has since disclosed contracts with at least 41 different New York municipal officials or their family members worth nearly $9 million combined.
The company asks all municipal officers who stand to profit personally or through a family member to recuse themselves from voting on project matters, said its spokesman Paul Copleman.
Among those Iberdrola signed up were a dozen elected officials in Lewis County with contracts totaling $7.5 million for the Maple Ridge Wind Farm, jointly owned by EDP and Iberdrola. That project became operational in 2006, two years before the state law took effect.
A town board member in Hopkinton, New York, also has a family member with a lease for the proposed North Ridge Wind Farm, an Iberdrola document shows. That board member, Gilbert Sochia, has recused himself from voting.
Other states have tried to pass similar measures.
Legislation introduced earlier this year in Indiana by Republican state Rep. Tom Saunders would have created conflict-of-interest disclosure requirements for wind companies that sign leases with government officials.
Saunders said his bill came at the behest of constituents who discovered their own local officials held lease agreements with companies trying to develop in the area.
The measure also would have established minimum distances between wind turbines and properties, and it would have required voters to approve all wind projects before they could be built.
The measure died, but Saunders said he will introduce similar legislation next year.
“When you have county commissioners and planning commissioners making decisions about whether to allow (wind farms) in your county – and then they financially benefit from them – the perception to the public, is who are they looking out for?” Saunders said.
NEW YORK COMMUNITY DIVIDED OVER WIND FARM
By Emily Le Coz & Lucille Sherman
The Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation group gathers regularly at a small cabin, dubbed “the soap shack,” near the Adirondack Mountains in northern New York.
Its mission: Stop development of the North Ridge Wind Farm.
Proposed by Avangrid Renewables, a U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, the project would place up to 40 industrial wind turbines throughout rural St. Lawrence County. The massive, churning structures would generate an estimated 100 megawatts of energy – enough to power 25,000 homes.
Avangrid touts the development as a financial lifeline for the economically distressed area. St. Lawrence County has New York state’s third highest unemployment rate – 5.8 percent as of September.
The company estimates its wind farm would pump $750,000 annually into local coffers – divided among the county, two towns and the school district. It also would pay participating property owners a combined $500,000 annually for use of their land.
But opponents say the turbines will mar their unspoiled landscape of farmland and rolling hills. They want to preserve the viewshed that attracted their families to this area in the first place.
They also want to protect themselves from the problems plaguing many of their neighbors to the east, where 300 turbines from five different wind projects have generated complaints about noise, health issues and diminished property values.
“The more we learned, the more concerned we became,” said Janice Pease, a member of Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation and a stay-at-home mom from Hopkinton.
Hopkinton is one of the two towns in St. Lawrence County included in the project footprint. The other is Parishville.
Together, they have a population of some 3,200 people who currently are mired in one of the biggest controversies to hit their area in recent memory.
Like other rural communities picked to host industrial wind farms, Hopkinton and Parishville have seen neighbor pitted against neighbor and lifelong friendships frayed as residents battle over whether to allow the developments.
“It has divided the community, even families,” said Hopkinton Supervisor Sue Wood. “The majority doesn’t want the wind turbines, but the people who signed leases really want it.”
As a town official, Wood said she feels torn. She wants to make everyone happy but realizes that will never happen. And the money Avangrid has offered is nice, she said, “but at what cost to our community?”
Avangrid spokesman Paul Copleman denied any of the company’s wind developments divide communities but acknowledged the process can be controversial.
“These investments are, of course, going to represent some amount of change in the community, and we want to do the best that we can to make sure the community is a partner in bringing that change along responsibly and appropriately,” Copleman said. “I think from there people will wrestle with various questions about what it means to develop a wind farm in a community. It’s our job to do the best we can to answer those questions.”
Company representatives began soliciting property owners for leases and easement agreements in 2010. Those who signed up were offered money in exchange for giving Avangrid unfettered access to their land to conduct early studies and, eventually, erect turbines and other equipment related to the wind farm.
Some residents stand to earn hundreds of thousands of dollars over the life of the wind farm, documents show.
Some of the largest landowners in the county were among the first to sign a contract. Other landowners followed suit; Avangrid now has 37 leases covering some 8,000 acres in the county.
Not all those approached took the deal. Representatives wanted Parishville beekeeper Luke Martin to sign a contract, but Martin said he had numerous concerns about the language – specifically the parts where he would relinquish some control of his land.
The money offered wasn’t worth losing his property rights for decades, he said.
Avangrid also approached Hopkinton and Parishville officials in 2010 to discuss the project. The company held an open house in both towns to share some details with the public, according to public records.
Then talk of the wind farm stopped. Some residents thought the project died. For nearly six years, nothing seemed to happen.
But the project became active again in 2016. Avangrid filed documents with the state, met again with local officials, held more public meetings, distributed educational materials and created a website for the project.
That’s when the Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation organized.
As many as two dozen people routinely attend the group’s meetings. Members claim to have an additional 200 residents on their list of supporters.
Papers, brochures, maps and other documents clutter the small cabin that once served as a storefront for a nearby soap manufacturer. A sign reading “No industrial wind turbines” hangs in the window.
Group members go door to door, informing residents of the project and distributing signs like the one in their window.
Their placards dot the yards of likeminded homeowners throughout the community. Some neighbors, though, belong to the opposing camp. Their yards feature “Yes wind power” signs.
The citizens’ group also has collected around 800 signatures for a petition against the project.
“For me,” Pease said, “this is life and death.”
COMMUNITY IN CHAOS
Group members said they aimed for a peaceful resistance of the project, hoping to keep the small community together, but controversy became unavoidable.
Residents with wind contracts face criticism from project opponents. Project opponents face accusations of NIMBYism. Town meetings erupt in shouting matches. Letters to the editor flood the local newspaper.
In August, heightened tensions caused Hopkinton Supervisor Sue Wood to request police at a public hearing about the project. The meeting became so disruptive that officials ejected a man who refused to let pro-project neighbors speak. He was later allowed to re-enter.
An pro-wind group called North County for a Brighter Future stoked the flames with an ad in the local newspaper: “Should the town of Hopkinton turn its back on $38 million ($15 million of which goes to landowners through leases and good neighbor agreements) in renewable energy revenue over a 30-year period because of scare tactics by a few people, mostly from Parishville?”
The New York Public Service Commission has received more than 400 comments about the project from residents in the past year alone.
“Wind turbines are green like the color of money,” wrote Parishville resident Katharine MacKay, “The only people in favor of them are people that love money more than anything in the world.”
“We are leaseholders, so to the anti-wind crowd, we’re in it for the money,” wrote Hopkinton resident Frank Potenzano. “They know nothing about us.”
Pease said the issue has done more than divide the community; it split her family.
She no longer speaks to her grandfather, a World War II veteran and major landowner who signed a lease with Avangrid to place two turbines on his land. Eli Sochia could earn as much as $250,000 over the lifetime of the project, a public document shows.
Also caught in the crosshairs is Sochia’s son, Gilbert, a Hopkinton Town board member who must recuse himself from voting on the North Ridge Wind Farm due to his father’s financial interest in the project.
Gilbert Sochia said Hopkinton needs the money. He has watched his town’s budget dwindle during his two decades on the board and doesn’t know how much longer it can survive without a major development like North Ridge.
“This is a deprived area,” he said. “There’s no work up here. If we don’t get the towers, we won’t get any money.”
Located near the Canadian border, St. Lawrence County has lost many of its manufacturing and agricultural jobs over the years. One of its largest employers, Alcoa, would have eliminated nearly 500 of its workers last year had the state not stepped in with financial incentives. The company will revisit its decision in 2019.
But Sochia said he’s sensitive to the concerns of opponents and believes the wind farm could pose some potential problems – the way any industrial development might. He doesn’t think his niece and her group have made a strong case against outright rejection of the project, though.
All they have done, he said, is stir up controversy.
Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation member Lori Witherell parked her car at the top of a ridge in Franklin County, just to the east of St. Lawrence.
“Look,” she said, pointing to the valley below where an army of industrial turbines dotted the lush, green landscape – 138 of them, their blades hypnotically slicing the air.
The structures comprise two different wind farms – Noble Clinton and Noble Chateaugay – constructed in 2008 and 2009.
“It has completely changed the character of this place,” Witherell said. “We don’t want this in our community. This is what we’re trying to prevent.”
Proponents of the wind project accuse the concerned citizens group of NIMBYism and fear-mongering. They also have claimed its members actively lobby against renewable energy.
Group members balk at the accusations.
“We hear people say that we’re making things up, but it’s only the leaseholders who are saying that,” said Witherell, the group’s secretary. “Most people say, ‘Thank you so much for doing this, we wouldn’t have known what was going on without you.’”
Less than 42,000 families live in St. Lawrence County, according to census data. Only 32 of them signed lease agreements with Avangrid. Two of them have multiple agreements.
“We shouldn’t have to live with the effects of these things just because a few people will make money,” said Luke Dailey, another member of the opposition group.
Dailey lives in a small, two-story house powered by solar panels and a backup gas generator. She considers herself an avid environmentalist and scoffs when people call her “anti-wind.”
It’s not wind energy she dislikes, she said; it’s industrial machines thrust upon her community so a few people can profit.
“I support green energy,” Dailey said. “But not like this.”
Many in the Amish community of the Adirondacks also oppose the turbines. Like Dailey, they said they care about the environment. But they harbor deep concerns about how the project will impact their simple lifestyle.
“We like to live in peace as much as possible,” said Levi Zook, “and it will disturb our peace.”
Avangrid’s project calls for several turbines near Zook’s land. The company wanted him to sign an agreement to host transmission lines for the project but he refused. He worries about not only about his peace, but his son with a rare genetic disorder that causes seizures and ear problems.
“What will it do to my child?” Zook said. “I don’t want to have to move because of this.”
Zook purchased 34 acres of land nearly six years ago to farm and raise his family. He liked the view and the fact he could cut his own firewood for cooking and heating his home. He and others in the Amish community use no electricity.
Despite their opposition to the turbines, many Amish families hesitate to speak out. They want what’s best for the entire community – even their leaseholding neighbors.
“I’m strongly opposed to it,” said Moses Yoder. “But I know most of the people who signed up for it, and I told them if the wind project comes, you’re still my friend.”