An extended moratorium on windmill construction will be the subject of a public hearing Tuesday.

The town board is again seeking public backing to again prolong a six-month moratorium, first enacted in March 2005, so town representatives can continue studying wind energy operations and how the zoning should be

handled.

A year of study turned up a lot of information about the pros and cons of operations, but no reliable models for zoning to accommodate them while protecting residential interests, according to town attorney Edwin Shoemaker.

“It’s so new on the block, it’s hard to get a handle on it,” he said. “We are the first town in Niagara County to be asked to deal with ... a wind farm.”

In early 2005, principals of Niagara Wind Energy, a subsidiary of AES Somerset, approached the town planning board with a concept proposal for a commercial energy-generating operation. As planners sought specifics — how many windmills, what size, where, etc. — town board members saw a problem in the lack of zoning regulations to control development. That’s why a moratorium was imposed on the issuing of building permits, Shoemaker said.

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Since they’d come no closer to a conclusion about the best way of handling windmill operations, the board sought last month to simply ban them outright. Residential reaction was resoundingly opposed in a well-attended public hearing.

“I was inclined to go with the ban. I had quite a rude awakening,” board member Richard Ray said.

Some of his reluctance has to do with town-AES relations, Ray said. The town and the power company are embroiled in multiple legal actions over the plant’s assessment and its land-filling practices. Also, the company simply feels like a formidible entity in matters affecting townspeople.

“It costs us a lot of money to deal with AES,” Ray said. “We’ve had a very rocky relationship with them.”

The town went so far as to hire a private communications consultant, Paul McAfee, last summer to speak for the town in matters regarding AES. McAfee has a one-year contract at a rate of $2,000 per month, shared by the town and Barker Central School District, to represent the town in AES-related subjects.

“AES is a giant. It’s sophisticated. They have a ton of lawyers,” Shoemaker said. “We needed somebody to counter what AES was saying to the press, to present our side of the story, so to speak.”

After a recent report portraying the town as impeding progress in windmill development, McAfee prepared a 12-page, question-and-answer style fact sheet spelling out the history of the windmill proceedings, diagrams and photos suggesting the potential size and scale of commercial windmills (up to 525 feet in height) and data suggesting negative health and life-quality effects.

The fact sheet also outlined AES’ failure to construct a new, secure landfill for ammoniated waste as the town said it committed to doing in 1999.

“There’s a reason why the town is a little apprehensive and wants things (concerning windmills) nailed down first,” McAfee said in a telephone interview. “What the town wants more than anything else is to know what AES plans to do.”

AES President Kevin R. Pierce is concerned to hear the town linking the plant’s land-filling practices with the windmill issue.

“It’s a little disturbing to know they think we’ve been less than upfront,” he said. “Our landfill is regulated by the Public Service Commission. AES has obtained all the proper approvals.”

As for Niagara Wind Energy’s proposed wind farm, Pierce said it’s a concept only at this point because pending zoning rules will dictate a concrete plan. As much as town officials seem to want to know specifics like height and density of turbines, he can’t provide them now, he said.

“It’s sort of difficult to come up with a final design whe you’re not sure what the rules are. ... Which comes first, the chicken or the egg?”

According to McAfee, the recent show of public support for windmills in Somerset needs clarification.

“There is no public consensus about this. There is confusion about commercial versus residential (windmills). They’re two very different things,” he said.

Two farmers in town, Joseph Zagmaster of Carmen Road and David Tickett of West Somerset Road, have residential-type towers. One is operating on a special use permit and the other is idle. In whatever zoning regulations it crafts, McAfee said, the town will not seek to block residential mills.

On Tuesday, Supervisor John Sweeney Jr. will announce members of a newly formed citizen committee that’s been put together to advise the town how to proceed with regulation writing. Members will include two employees of AES, local liaison John Reimann and Virginia corporate-based project director Paul Burdick, along with representatives of the community, school district, planning, zoning and town boards and the Niagara County Planning Board.

The public hearing will begin at 7:30 p.m. at the town hall.

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