With wind turbines literally on the horizon, Naples officials are again calling on state leaders to make sure the power-generating machines are farther away from the town’s borders.
While prior requests have led to several meetings with representatives from the state Attorney General’s Office, so far no action has been taken.
Turbines on the hills near Naples became operational earlier this year. Plans for more turbines in Prattsburgh in Steuben County and Italy in Yates County give new urgency to the call for re-siting, said Naples Supervisor Frank Duserick.
“The issue has now become critical,” Duserick wrote last month in a letter to the state Public Service Commission in which he asks for a meeting to discuss the town’s concerns. “Time is running out.”
Duserick maintains the Town Board is not against wind power, but wants to be sure turbines in neighboring towns are sited appropriately. His concerns range from health and safety to the rights of Naples property owners.
“I don’t care how it looks or what materials they use,” he said of neighboring wind developments. “I care about the impact to the quality of life for people living near wind turbines.”
Duserick and town officials have some new ammunition at their disposal: European studies that led to increased setback requirements for turbines.
Duserick’s letter, among other things, references a study from Portuguese acoustical engineer Mariana Alves-Pereira that prompted the French National Academy of Medicine to recommend that turbines be placed at least 1 1/4 kilometers from homes because of possible health hazards from low-frequency sound waves that can be emitted by the turbines.
“Europe realized the health issues,” Duserick said. “Setback requirements are increasing in developed countries.”
One wind energy company in the area, First Wind, began operating 50 turbines — most clustered on Pine and Lent hills in Cohocton — early this year. The company’s plans to erect more than 40 additional turbines for a project in Prattsburgh are currently on hold due to financing issues.
Another company, Ecogen, plans to start work this fall on 33 turbines across Prattsburgh and Italy
if a needed permit is secured from Italy. Ecogen’s development partner, Pattern Energy Group — which bought out former investor Babcock and Brown after they filed for bankruptcy — will own and operate the project once it enters the construction phase.
The Naples Town Board’s main focus has centered on five turbines that Ecogen’s original plans sited on Knapp Hill in Prattsburgh. One would be within 250 of the Naples town line, said Duserick, and less than 500 feet from a Naples landowner’s property line.
Going to court?
In his letter to the Public Service Commission, Duserick cites not only European studies but also the research of an American pediatrician, Dr. Nina Pierpont, who advocates turbines with setbacks of at least 1 1/2 miles from homes. She claims to have found a link between the way the inner ear senses low-frequency sound waves to a range of symptoms like dizziness, racing heartbeat, and memory and concentration problems.
Because low-frequency sound waves are inaudible, they aren’t addressed by local ordinances capping noise at a set decibel level.
Noise is proving to be a concern locally. Although turbines operated by First Wind in Cohocton have not been measured to see if they exceed the permitted sound level of 50 decibels, complaints from Cohocton residents that turbine noise was keeping them awake at night prompted the company to set up a hotline earlier this year to handle calls reporting noise problems.
A representative from Clipper, the manufacturer of the turbines, has said the company is continuing to evaluate additional measures to dampen sound levels.
Duserick said he has gotten calls and letters from homeowners along Lawyer and County Line roads complaining that they too are disturbed by noise from the turbines. “The noise doesn’t stop at the town line, or the county line,” he said.
Duserick and the Town Board believe the placement of turbines within a few hundred feet of the town line would infringe upon Naples landowners’ property rights.
“If Naples landowners adjacent to (Pattern Energy Group’s) project want to build homes on their property, they should have the freedom to do so,” he wrote.
“The issue to me is, our people are not even being compensated for using their properties for safety zones,” Duserick added. “They have not had a say so far. No one in our town or county has had any say in or influence over these projects, even though we tried to provide input.”
If turbine foes find no relief from the state, the fight could end up in a courtroom. Rochester attorney Marino Fernandez said he has taken on a number of clients in Cohocton and Naples who are troubled with the turbines’ proximity, and he plans to file a number of civil lawsuits on their behalf, seeking compensation for personal, property, and environmental injuries due to wind developments.
“The process is scary, and sometimes people don’t want to be the first one to take action,” he said. “That’s why there’s going to be a thousand people who are going to be the first one. I’m not doing this for the money, and I want to help.”
Fernandez said legal challenges may prove the most effective way to bring concerns over property rights and health to the forefront.
“A lot of people moved here because they liked the natural beauty,” he said of the rural hills south of the Finger Lakes. “If you build a million-dollar home to have a view of the hills, and now you look out your window and see 50 of these things — they’re not nice to look at.”
“Like every big cause in the world, many of these issues don’t come to light unless it is litigated,” he added. “There’s more evidence being introduced, and it will come out.”
Watching the market
Duserick is angry his town wasn’t notified in advance of project reviews for multiple wind developments in neighboring towns. In at least one case, he said, the village was notified but not the Town Board.
But Beth O’Brien, spokesperson for Pattern Energy, said the town could have participated in the public comment process before setbacks for the Ecogen project were finalized. What’s more, she said, “It’s incorrect to assume that Naples residents receive no benefit from the neighboring project.”
While town government will not receive any direct revenue, the Naples Central School District will benefit from an annual payment-in-lieu-of taxes (PILOT) agreement, and residents may benefit from an “economic ripple effect” as money is spent locally during construction of the wind towers, O’Brien said.
And she pointed to long-term benefits to state residents, like lower electricity prices and a reduction in pollution.
While the distance from the town line itself may be smaller, O’Brien said the nearest Ecogen turbine would be 1,422 feet from the nearest residence in Naples. That distance exceeds the setback requirements of 1,200 to 1,375 feet set for non-participating residences — homes where owners do not have a lease agreement allowing a tower on their land — in Steuben or Yates counties. Those setbacks were established during project review using safety studies that analyzed the risk of scenarios like ice throw, blade throw and tower collapse.
Based on those studies, said O’Brien, “We believe 1,422 feet from the nearest Naples (residence) is more than sufficient to protect the safety and property rights of Naples landowners.”
Duserick has echoed concerns raised by residents that Naples property values will be affected by neighboring wind projects, although wind developers have said that may not be the case.
After receiving numerous calls and questions on the subject, Naples Assessor Kathleen Davis recently reported “so far, at least the town hasn’t lowered any assessments because of existing or planned wind towers.”
Davis said most questions have centered on an assessment reduced during the town’s recent revaluation on a property bordering Ecogen’s project area owned by John Servo, president of local anti-windmill group Advocates for Prattsburgh. Servo has published statements saying that an independent appraisal of the undeveloped property supported a 60-percent reduction in the tax assessment, since the property will no longer being suitable for building once neighboring turbines go up.
Davis said the assessment was dropped due to a change in use — since the property was not being marketed or prepared for development, it did not need to remain on file as a prime building lot. But, she said, tax assessments are reactive, and neighboring wind development hasn’t yet shown that it’s affecting Naples’ housing market.
“As assessors, we’re never looking ahead to future market conditions,” she said. “We’re always studying sales that have already taken place. In Naples, home sale prices have continued to rise. Our market has not shown a decrease — not with the current economic conditions, not with wind development. Until sales show a decrease, assessments will not go down.”
Meanwhile, Public Service Commission spokesman James Denn earlier this month said the agency was still reviewing the town’s letter and planned to set up a call to discuss the board’s concerns.
O’Brien said that currently only four of the five towers originally planned for Knapp Hill still figure in Ecogen’s plans. The overall number of turbines has been adjusted slightly as construction draws closer, and project maps on file with the towns of Italy and Prattsburgh may continue to undergo minor changes in the next few weeks.
“We are still evaluating the turbine closest to Naples, and it is possible it will not be in the final project layout,” said O’Brien.
Duserick said he has also heard from one of Ecogen’s attorneys who agreed to talk with town officials about their concerns and take a look at the land in question.
“What he said was ‘I’d like to build a dialogue,’ and we think that’s appropriate,” Duserick said. “That’s all we’re looking for, is communication.”