ITHACA, NY – Found yourself caught off guard by all the controversy surrounding the Enfield wind farm project? We’re here to help.

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Last week, the town of Enfield held a contentious discussion about the proposed Black Oak Wind Farm – a set of 7 wind turbines to be located in the small town. We were there for the whole thing, and we’ve condensed the two-and-a-half hour discussion down to the nine most contentious topics of the night.

This list is by no means comprehensive, and some of the conclusions aren’t entirely satisfying – which just goes to illustrate how complex the truly issue is.

To read more about the last week’s heated meeting, read: Passions rise and allegations fly as Enfield debates wind farm

To get more background about the project, read: Some residents object to $40 million wind farm in small Tompkins town

Then, read on to dive into some of the specifics of what was learned at last week’s discussion.

Questions of Safety

Are wind turbines safe at the current distances?

According to town law, the turbines that Black Oak will use need to be at least 532 feet from the nearest residence (this distance is referred to as the “setback”). Black Oak maintains that its turbines will be placed, on average, 1,500 feet from the nearest residence.

Still, many residents expressed concern about the proximity, saying that these numbers are substantially lower than most other places. One community member referred to setbacks measured in kilometers, rather than feet, in the United Kingdom. A closer example was also referenced, with a wind farm in Ohio seeing setbacks of 1,125 feet from the property line.

Black Oak vice president and project director Marguerite Wells reaffirmed that Black Oak’s planned setbacks are safe and go well beyond the town-mandated setbacks. However, the consensus from several audience members, as expressed by mediator Jeff Shepardson, was that those town-mandated regulations didn’t feel safe enough.

What happens if a turbine were to damage a home? Wells said she was, “sure that (Black Oak’s) insurance would cover it.”

Just how common are “deaths by wind turbine?” A study by wind farm watchdog group Caithness Windfarm Information Forum reported a total of 162 windfarm-related fatalities in the past 40 years. Roughly 66 percent of those were wind industry workers, many killed by falls while maintaining the equipment.

To put that in context, a Forbes report measured the mortality rate of all energy sources. Wind ranked as the second least dangerous, beating out solar and hydro power (nuclear power was rated safest).

Are wind turbines a health risk?

Aside from the threat of a turbine falling over, catching on fire of flinging ice, some people expressed concerns about the machines being a health risk, mostly in relation to the sound they produce.

Anecdotal reports have linked turbines to anxiety, dizziness, sleep disruption, and worsening migraines. While one doctor wrote and self-published a book about “Wind Turbine Syndrome,” this Slate report suggests that these health issues are the result of a “nocebo” effect – that is, experiencing negative symptoms by suggestion – the opposite of a placebo.

Audio engineer Ryan Callahan offered a fairly in-depth and highly technical debunking of the health risks of so-called infrasound. This low-frequency sound surrounds us all the time, he explained, and in most cases a wind turbine produces less of the stuff than the wind blowing through the trees.

What impact will the turbines have on wildlife?

Some residents were also upset about the potential damage to nearby fauna, some seeming to imply that the turbines would turn the area into an uninhabited wasteland.

While Black Oak didn’t tackle this question directly, their website FAQ does touch on the subject, noting that while wind turbines do kill several birds every year, each turbine kills less than the average housecat.

Further, several speakers made reference to people continuing to use their farm land in the area of the turbines, saying it’s not an uncommon sight to see cows grazing undisturbed below a spinning fan blade.

More information about wildlife and other environmental impacts can be found in Black Oak’s Environmental Impact Statement.

Questions of Economics

Who is getting all the power?

Some concern has been raised about the fact that Cornell plans on purchasing the approximately 12 megawatts of power produced by Black Oak’s seven proposed wind turbines.

Wells clarified that the electricity produced by the wind farm gets “mixed in” to the grid along with that produced by other local power sources. “On the face of it, Cornell says it’s buying the power, because they are paying the bill. We are effectively using Cornell’s money to finance the project, but they don’t get the electrons directly.”

What are the impacts of wind turbines on real estate values?

Several residents expressed concerns about property values being lowered by having wind turbines near a property. One woman claimed that her realtor had told her that she would have a hard time selling her property at all since it was in close proximity to one of the proposed turbines.

Wells explained that she had asked several realtors to come and offer their opinion on the issue, but none accepted the invitation. The reason, according to Wells, is that there simply wasn’t enough reliable data.

She said that several studies had been done on the subject and most of them showed that wind turbines had no effect on real estate value. One study, conducted in northern New York based on data from five to ten years ago, said that the turbines lowered property value by 15 to 30 percent. As no studies had been conducted in this area and because they had no direct experience with the issue, no Tompkins-area realtors felt comfortable opining on the subject.

You can read some of the studies mentioned in this “Field Guide to Wind Farms and their Effect on Property Values.”

What benefits is Black Oak giving back to the town?

Wells explained that Black Oak is functionally a taxpayer through the “payment in lieu of taxes,” or PILOT system. Although they don’t use much in the way of services, like water, sewer or garbage.

Black Oak would be paying approximately $133,000 annually, for 15 years. This payment is divided between the town of Enfield, the Enfield school district, and Tompkins County. Enfield in particular will be paid $45,000 annually.

Wells also pointed to the Good Neighbor Agreement (a matter of contention in its own right – more on that later) as a way of giving back to the town. Through the agreement, Black Oak promises to pay those who opt-in to the agreement $500 annually, as a profit-sharing measure.

An Enfield man noted that the agreement may not be as generous as it first sounds, arguing that Black Oak’s might being paying less than if they’re tax rate was based on the value of the turbines.

Wells countered by saying that PILOT agreements are standard practice for power plants, further noting that the decision was reached by the town, school district and school board. “I was not party to it at all,” she said.

Questions of Contracts and Regulation

Were people bulled into signing the “Good Neighbor Agreement?”

Despite the name, the Good Neighbor Agreement was the focus of some of the most heated comments and discussions.

Enfield resident Maria Ortiz proclaimed loudly against the agreement, saying those who had signed it “suffer every day.” She also expressed frustration at the methods that Black Oak representatives used when presenting the agreement.

Ortiz claimed that Black Oak representatives had spent upwards of 40 minutes trying to convince her to sign, and returned more than once after she had told them no. She characterized Black Oak’s practices using the agreement as bullying and underhanded.

She also made reference to Black Oak employees coming on or near her land and routinely chopping down trees.

Wells addressed this last claim saying simply that it had nothing to do with Black Oak, and that it was in fact one of Ortiz’s neighbors gathering firewood. Wells did not address the other claims directly.

A woman from Ulysses, an investor in Black Oak, said that she was one of the people who had volunteered to knock on people’s doors as she wanted to make sure that all the residents were completely aware of the wind farm and its potential repercussions.

Does the “Good Neighbor Agreement” have a gag clause or waive the signor’s rights?

There was a great deal that was unclear about the specifics of the Good Neighbor Agreement.

One woman said that the agreement included a “gag order” that prevented those who signed from speaking against the wind farm, saying that she was “there to speak for those who couldn’t.”

Another woman, who claimed to be a lawyer, said that the agreement was essentially a waiver of rights to sue in case of an accident involving one of the turbines.

Wells disagreed with both statements, promising that there was no gag clause and saying that those who signed the agreements were not waiving any rights.

What are the plans for expansion of the wind farm?

One Enfield resident wondered if the seven turbines proposed by the project would be the end of it. She suggested that the substation that was being built as part of the project hinted toward a larger wind field with roughly 20 turbines.

Another person asked if the town would be safe if another company bought out Black Oak and wanted to install more turbines.

Wells explained that the original proposal had called for 20 turbines, but the number had been scaled back due to concerns from the town board and populace. She noted that Black Oak already made several concessions, including getting smaller blades for the turbines.

She further explained that even the small changes to the plan, like moving one turbine a few hundred feet, required onerous amounts of work, repeated environmental tests, re-certifications, and further public comment solicitations.

To the second question, Wells said that all the same rules would apply should another company buy out Black Oak. The local government and the public would have ample opportunities to fight further expansion of the wind farm, if they so desire.

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Michael Smith

Michael Smith reports on politics and local news for the Ithaca Voice. He can be reached via email at msmith@ithacavoice.com, by cell at (607) 229-0885, or via Google Voice at (518) 650-3639.