Wind farms are a touchy subject in the North Country. As the town of Cape Vincent wrestles with a potential project, in neighboring Lewis County another wind farm has been operating for seven years.
The hallways at Lowville Academy and Central School during lunchtime sound like any other: kids letting loose, getting out some pent-up energy before heading back into classrooms for the afternoon.
But in some ways, this school is very different from its peers throughout rural upstate New York. For one thing, even with state aid drying up, the district hasn't raised taxes in seven years. That's despite the completion of a recent $32.8 million building project. The district didn't borrow money for that either.
Cheryl Steckley, superintendent of the Lowville school district, walks around the sprawling brick building that houses the entire student body – and then outside, to newly renovated athletic fields and stands.
“We have a field that's used for soccer, lacrosse, football. And there's a baseball field in the corner over here, and softball in this corner. It's state-of-the-art for this community,” she points out.
Back inside, Steckley shows off new classrooms for students with disabilities, new science labs, and a very modern-looking two-level art space complete with gallery.
State aid paid for part of these renovations, but most of the local community's contribution came from the wind turbines spinning on a ridge a few miles from the school. The Maple Ridge Wind Farm also generates about $3.5 million a year for the school district.
And the school hasn’t been the only beneficiary since the wind farm started operating in 2006. A payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement between seven different taxing jurisdictions and the Maple Ridge developers, has infused millions of dollars into local governments in Lewis County.
Terrence Thisse is supervisor of the town of Martinsburg. At the time the project was proposed the town brought in about $350,000 in taxes each year. The majority of a total 100 turbines would be placed in the town and, “we would see something in the neighborhood of, I believe it was close to $100,000, which was approximately one-third of our budget. And so he got our attention,” he says.
But the project ended up doubling in size and depending on the year, the town receives between $800,000 and $1.2 million. That's between double or triple its entire pre-wind-farm tax revenues. And what’ve they done with all that money?
“Well, the town is still in the process of upgrading our infrastructure. We're paving roads that may not have been paved before. We are doing playgrounds. We have an older town hall building built in the early 1800s and we are renovating that,” Thisse says.
And the town is setting up a reserve account to keep taxes at 2005 levels into the future.
County plans infrastructure upgrades
Lewis County, which supplements its tax revenues with about $2 million every year from the wind farm is also making upgrades. Michael Tabolt is chairman of the county legislature. He says the county’s planning a much-needed overhaul of its emergency communications equipment. It's also stashing some of that money aside to keep taxes down but says the county's economy benefits in other ways, too.
“One of the huge effects to our county is not just in the tax that we receive, but also the people that work there. We have roughly 30 employees that are mostly all local people that have good-paying jobs there," he says. "And not only that, we certainly don't want to forget the properties that the wind turbines sit on.”
Tabolt and Martinsburg Supervisor Thisse, both dairy farmers, say leases for turbines are an important contribution to farm income.
“As a dairy farmer, I can see all of us looking for different sources of income just to continue doing what you love doing. And this, in all likelihood, helped a number of them to continue,” he says.
Thisse has a lease himself, which earns him about $7,500 per year for the turbine on his land. He says some farmers have finally been able to retire and still retain their land, as a result of the lease payments.
Further north, BP's proposed wind project in the town of Cape Vincent, has many residents concerned about the impact on their property values. In Lewis County, the Maple Ridge Wind Farm has had little or no effect on values – if anything there's been a slight upward bump.
That's according to Martin Heintzelman, an economics professor at Clarkson University who studied the effect wind farms have had on property values in Clinton, Franklin and Lewis counties. In Clinton and Franklin counties, wind projects did seem to depress property values between 10 and 20 percent, depending on how close a home was to a turbine.
Lewis County seems to be different, though. Perhaps, he says, because of how the projects are set back from houses or the different landscape.
“It's also possible that sociodemographically, or preference-wise, the people in Lewis County might – and this is obviously a broad generality – but it may be that they don't mind the turbines as much as people in other places,” says Heintzelman.
Impact on landscape
But some people don't believe anything can make up for the changes. Gordon Yancey is a non-participating landowner in Lewis County. He owns the Flat Rock Inn, a snowmobiler bar and hotel on a small ridge overlooking farmland, outside Lowville.
Driving up the gravel road to the inn, it's obvious what drew Yancey to this space when he built his inn 24 years ago: the view is spectacular.
Well, Yancey would say it was spectacular. Now, dozens and dozens of 260 feet wind turbines sprout from the fields, completely dominating the scene. Depending on your preference, he's either got the best or the worst view of the wind farm in the county.
Yancey isn't a talkative guy, but he makes his feelings about the change pretty clear.
“How do the Indians feel that Manhattan got taken from them and skyscrapers got built on it?” he asks.
Yancey says his business hasn't declined, but his feeling for a landscape he's known for decades, has.
Back in Martinsburg, town supervisor Terrence Thisse, says the community knew there was a price to pay for the cash the wind farm would bring.
“The negative effects of the wind tower project are obvious," he says. "As far as the individual taxpayer and the permanent resident, they're more than likely going to benefit. The local school district will benefit. But there is a visual effect; you're gonna see 'em.”
In Lewis County, the majority of residents and certainly government officials seem to think the tradeoff was worth it. Cape Vincent residents in Jefferson County, may see things quite differently, weighing up whether changing the scenery of the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario shorelines would be worth it.
Disclaimer: Maple Ridge is a joint venture between Iberdrola Renewables, LLC and Horizon Wind Energy, owned by EDP Renewables. Iberdrola Renewables provides underwriting to the Innovation Trail reporting project.