Bill Burke does not see what the uproar over wind turbines is about.
A landowner in Lewis County's Tug Hill region — famous for its astounding snow accumulations— Burke has lived near the 195-turbine Maple Ridge Wind Project since January 2006. Seven turbines are sited on his 600 acres, split between the towns of Lowville and Harrisburg.
So far, he's seen few of the negative impacts — noise, vibrations — that wind project opponents often reference. But he's seen plenty of positives: new jobs, lease payments and lower tax bills thanks to revenue from the developers, EDP Renewables, LLC and Avangrid Renewables.
“It's been nothing but a positive experience," said Burke, a former dairy farmer and Lewis County legislator. "We have 35 well-paying jobs out of the deal, and they'll all local. The school and township and county all benefitted greatly from it. It's just worked out well. The landowners are compensated well.”
Cheryl Steckly, superintendent of Lowville Academy and Central School, said the school district has made dramatic improvements with the $27 million it's receiving through a Payment In Lieu of Taxes agreement with the developers. They have added science labs, art facilities and a gallery, smart boards in every classroom, a turf football field and wireless internet. Every student from third grade up now has a ChromeBook for schoolwork.
The district also was able to renovate its outdated facilities, making improvements to the gym, pool, roofing, heating and air conditioning and more.
“The demands on our local taxpayers would not have allowed us to make improvements at the level we were able to," Steckly said. “It's very significant.”
“I think people have been able to see the financial impact that this has had on a rural community," she added.
Residents of Sheldon — one of four Wyoming County towns hosting wind projects — have also seen a windfall from Invenergy's 75-unit High Sheldon Wind Farm.
Town Supervisor Brian Becker said the nearly $1 million-per-year, 20-year PILOT agreement meant the town could cut taxes to $0 from 2009 to 2016.
Becker recounted hearing from one resident had been against the project, but changed his mind after his first goose-egg town tax bill.
“There's very few who are still critical of it," Becker said.
That was not the case when Invenergy proposed the project late last decade. At the time, Becker said, many residents were vocally opposed over concerns about the noise, vibrations and shadow flicker generated by wind turbines, and, of course, their impact on the horizon.
To gauge public opinion, Sheldon held an unofficial referendum. Only about 50 percent of the town voted, and of those, 60 percent were in favor and 40 percent against.
“The way I look at it, 80 percent of the people were either for the wind turbines or they didn't care enough to get out and vote," Becker said.
Since the project was constructed in 2009, Becker said Invenergy has been very responsive to residents' complaints relating to noise or shadow flicker. He recalls Invenergy purchased drapes for a woman who experienced some shadow flicker, an effect caused when the turbines spin and cast moving shadows.
“I give them an A-plus rating with their interactions here within the community," Becker said.
Meanwhile, Burke said the effects of turbines are sometimes exaggerated by their opponents.
Turbines do hum as the blades turn, but walk about 100 yards away and that hum turns to a whisper, Burke said. And, the ambient sound of daily life easily drowns out the low hum.
“If you're busy and you've got anything going on at all in your life, you don't notice this stuff," Burke said. "And you really don't hear anything to start with, unless you're really still and you want to hear something."
Burke has noticed shadow flicker, too. But he has found it lasts for only about 10 to 15 minutes per day, and only under very specific conditions.
“The sun has to be just right and no clouds in the sky," he said. "You don't get it every day.”
Of course, the visual effect is undeniable. Turbines are big, white sore thumbs over a horizon of tree tops and farm fields.
Still, some don't see them as eyesores. In Lewis County, Steckly said, a private swimming team has dubbed itself the Turbine Swim Club.
“I think people see the turbines are part of our local community," Steckly said. "It's just part of our landscape.”
“People have come to accept them," Becker said. "One person who was against them because of aesthetics, he said, 'I don't see 'em any longer; when I do, it's to see what direction the wind is coming from.'”
Burke said that during construction of the Maple Ridge project, people flocked to the Tug Hill region to see the turbines go up. In 2005, turbines were still relatively rare in upstate New York.
"It was fascinating to watch," Burke said. "We used to have a lot of visitors here."
Burke said construction was otherwise "uneventful."
Becker said the work was a major boost to the local economy. For months on end, nearly every restaurant, hotel and apartment in Sheldon and neighboring towns was full.
Altogether, Becker said, most residents are happy Invenergy sited its project there.
“I would recommend it," Becker said. "I feel it is a positive. But this is a democracy, and the people in that community would have to vote yes or no. It's up to them.”
COMING MONDAY: Some Wyoming County residents find noise, vibrations from wind turbines unbearable.
FROM THE EDITOR
As part of the US&J's ongoing coverage of the issues surrounding Apex Clean Energy LLC's proposed commercial wind energy project in the Barker-Lyndonville area, reporter Tim Fenster has been talking to people who live near existing wind farms in New York state, to get a sense of the "pros" and "cons" of wind energy generation that's more than speculative.
Today we're launching a two-part series on the question, focusing first on those who have had positive experiences residing near commercial/industrial wind installations.
Part 2, to be published in the Monday edition, considers the views of those who say their lives were disrupted by an installation.