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Hilltowns Archives —The Altamont Enterprise, October 23, 2008

Throw zoning to the wind?

By Zach Simeone

As Shell WindEnergy looks to build industrial-sized wind turbines in Albany County, on the crest of the Helderbergs, residents and officials have taken stances both in favor and against the idea of commercial wind farms.

Meanwhile, the municipalities in which Shell has approached residents — Berne, New Scotland and Rensselaerville — are devoid of zoning that specifically regulates these massive structures.

Rensselaerville adopted a comprehensive plan in March of 2007 that allows only community-owned wind development. The new zoning, adopted in accordance with that plan, was challenged in court by Rensselaerville Farmland Protection, a group that took issue with the lot sizes in the agricultural district.

As a result of that case, “the zoning was completely thrown out,” said the town’s attorney Joseph Catalano. Prior zoning remains in place.

At a special meeting on Monday, the town board of Rensselaerville introduced a draft of a local law that will temporarily halt all work on wind projects in the town. A public hearing will be held on Nov. 13 at 7 p.m. before the board votes on it.

The law, if passed, will establish a six-month moratorium on all applications and approvals for wind-power projects in the town.

The moratorium will temporarily suspend the administrative review and approval process for all proposals regarding the construction or installation of wind-power facilities, whether those proposals are new or currently pending.

The purpose of this suspension, according to the draft law, is to provide the town the opportunity to study and evaluate this kind of land use for both commercial and private use, and to draft and propose regulations for such use.

“Currently, the town zoning law does not address the wind-power facility as a permitted or allowed use in the town,” Councilwoman Marie Dermody read from the draft, “nor does it provide the standards or guidelines for review of such land use and facilities.”

Before it was discarded, the zoning adopted by the town board said that the building of wind energy conversion systems would require a special-use permit and site-plan review approval from the planning board prior to issuance of a building permit.

A wind energy conversion system was defined as “any mechanism designed for the purpose of converting the kinetic energy of wind into electrical or mechanical energy.”

The site plan and special permits could include evaluation and approval of turbine location, setbacks, height landscaping, lighting, shadow flicker, visual impact, noise, and safety considerations.

Dermody read on, to a section that further fleshes out the details of the draft moratorium law.

“For a period of six months, immediately following the effective date of this law, there is hereby imposed a moratorium on all commercial or non-commercial applications for the installation or construction of wind power, wind farms, or wind generated energy facilities on land located within the municipal boundaries of the town or Rensselaerville, and that no approval, permit, action or decisions shall be made or issued by any board or official of the town of Rensselaerville with respect to any such application,” Dermody read.

Violation of the moratorium will carry a $100-a-day fine.

Additionally, this law is intended to supersede any state statute or regulation with which it is inconsistent.

Rensselaerville’s comprehensive land-use plan states that the town will have a substantial ownership stake in any large-scale wind project, and will only allow such development if it is community-owned and brings significant, long-term financial benefit to the town.

“We have a 35-foot limit on anything that size,” David Weiss told The Enterprise this week. “So, you’d have to get an easement, and, in a lot of rural areas, it’s decided by how high a fire ladder can reach.” Weiss is a volunteer firefighter, and president of New York Farmers’ Wind Power, LLC, who was on the committee that worked on the town’s comprehensive plan.

“To get that easement, it will have to be something that’s profitable for the town, but, in order to do that, they’re going to have to offer us something that isn’t particularly profitable for them,” he said.

Weiss is not optimistic about residents’ finding the desire for windmills in their backyards.

“One thing we really need is a cell tower here,” Weiss said. “When the fire department goes down into Preston Hollow, we can’t get in touch with the rest of the department. We need another tower for emergencies, and the residents don’t even want that to be built here, let alone something like these turbines — and a cell tower is something that will literally save their lives,” he said.

Residents will have a chance to speak their minds on the draft moratorium on Nov. 13.

Other towns

Shell has also approached residents of New Scotland and Berne in its wind-power ventures. According to town officials, neither town has zoning in place addressing wind turbines.

“It’s under review and examination currently,” said New Scotland Supervisor Tom Dolin of possibly creating the zoning that would regulate windmills.

“Initially, as far as these commercial windmill farms, we’re exploring the idea of treating them as public utilities,” said Dolin. “We did discuss this, and we’re aware that we have to take steps here to make sure the zoning law protects. It’s a top priority in our agenda of items to be done,” he said.

“I’ve been contacted by a couple of law firms that are interested in working with the town in representing or advising the town in connection with these types of activities, and we’re exploring the possibility of hiring a planner to assist us,” Dolin said.

Robert Stapf, chairman of New Scotland’s planning board, said, “We do have a height requirement in our ordinance that’s 45 feet. Anything higher than that would require a variance, and you’d have to go to the variance board.”

Berne’s zoning ordinance does not address the building of wind turbines either, according to Supervisor Kevin Crosier.

“In order for that to be changed, they’d have to change the law, and, in order to change a town’s zoning ordinance, it must match your comprehensive plan, and the town’s plan is silent on wind energy,” said Crosier.

“The discussion of wind energy needs to take place during a comprehensive review, so the residents will understand the impacts of such projects on their community. That’s why it’s so critical that it’s reviewed in the town’s comprehensive plan. That gives people on both sides the chance to discuss not only wind energy, but also their community as a whole,” Crosier said.

As of yet, residents in Knox have not reported being approached by Shell. But, being that Knox is a Helderberg Hilltown, the zoning board is in the process of creating a wind turbine law, says Supervisor Michael Hammond.

“I haven’t heard anything about Shell, or any large company approaching the town on any official basis,” Hammond said.

A small-scale community wind project in Knox has been in the works for two years, laying the foundation for the Helderberg Wind Project. It plans to place three 1.5-megawatt wind turbines along Middle Road, back from roads and away from houses.

“Actually, we have zoning in place that prohibits industrial sized wind turbines, but our zoning board is addressing that issue with the formulation of a wind turbine law,” said Hammond. “Right now, you can put up a small residential windmill — we have regulations regarding that. But, we need to develop new regulations addressing the industrial-sized turbines,” he said.

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