Does a North Country activist have the power to keep a wind farm out of his town?

Sep 28, 2017
Originally published on September 27, 2017 6:29 am

An energy developer with plans to build a big wind farm in rural St. Lawrence County recently got a surprise.

Avangrid Renewables is getting ready to submit an application to build the North Ridge Wind Farm, with up to 40 turbines in Hopkinton and Parishville. The towns are deeply divided, but the final decision was supposed to rest with a state siting board. This summer, the state announced that an anti-wind activist from Parishville will get to sit on that board — raising big questions about what this process is meant to accomplish.

A "concerned citizen" enters the fray

Gary Snell Sr. is an anti-wind activist from the Parishville area. He’s also a retired school superintendent - and seriously organized, with a pen in the pocket of his flannel shirt and a long list of reasons why he doesn’t want wind farms anywhere near his town.

"They would interfere with not only the health and safety of the residents but the vista. The beauty of the area as you look around this property," Snell said, gesturing around a two-acre lot ringed by tall trees and farmland. "This is repeated over and over again in Parishville and Hopkinton. We don’t want that taken away."

A little over a year ago, Snell helped start a group called Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation. The members have been protesting at public meetings and using their own money to print anti-wind farm lawn signs. That's why Snell was a little surprised, but happy to find out he'll have a seat on New York’s energy siting board.

The board is made up of five state agency heads plus two spots for local people per project. Snell was recommended by the Parishville town supervisor and ultimately nominated to the seat by Assemblyman Carl Heastie. (Heastie's office didn't respond to a request for an interview.)

From "crapshoot" to courtroom

Paul Copleman, a spokesman for Avangrid Renewables, said Snell is not the right person for the job. "It’s not appropriate for the head of the opposition to preside over the case," Copleman said. "Ultimately, we feel there’s a certain expectation that the evidence will be judged fairly and with an open mind."

If Copleman's comments seem a little lawyerly, there’s a reason for that. It’s because New York has totally changed the way it thinks about renewable energy projects. For a while, there was no set process for building wind farms or solar farms in New York State. Companies would just negotiate with town boards; it could get messy.

"It was a crapshoot," said Gary Abraham, a public interest lawyer in southwest New York. Abraham spent about a decade working with activists and town boards courted by energy companies. Right now, he's working on one of the first wind proposals to go before the new state siting board.

"It's litigation just like you have in civil court," Abraham said. "You have hearing examiners presiding over the proceeding, making sure it’s fair. And nobody gets surprised and everybody has an opportunity to respond to papers and assertions that one side or another puts in. It’s very orderly."

It's also very slow. The project that Abraham’s working on — the Cassadaga wind farm — is pretty popular with the community. But that hasn’t made things go much faster, and it doesn’t guarantee success. The developer has been forced to remove at least 10 turbines from its proposal, and after two years, the state review process still isn’t over.

How did it get so complicated?

That timeline should be worrisome, if you ask Patricia Acampora. She sat on New York’s Public Service Commission  which regulates utilities across the state from 2005 through this year.

"The governor has asked state agencies to move things along and to work with counties and towns to get things done faster," Acampora said. "You know, you don’t want to be the obstacle in a project that’s really worthy and something that’s going to be good."

New York has tried to make renewable energy a priority. The state recently set a goal of getting half its power from renewable energy resources by 2030. Shifting big wind farms and solar farms onto a single track — a single state board — started looking like a way to get there sooner.

Acampora wasn't a fan of that idea. But at the end of the day, she said, all energy regulation in New York,  including the energy law, Article 10, revolves around the idea that power is a public good. "You don’t want to operate in a vacuum," Acampora said. "You know that projects are going to have effects on people. You want to know."

The result is a process that’s trying to have it both ways: make renewable energy development fast and easy but still accountable to local people. We’re just starting to see the effects of that back in St. Lawrence County.

A conflict of interest?

Under state law, Avangrid Renewables had to set aside money for “intervenors.” These are local groups that might not have the resources to hire lawyers, but still want their concerns to be heard.

Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation, the opposition group in Hopkinton and Parishville which Gary Snell, Sr. helped to start, asked for intervenor status and an administrative judge said yes. The group will get at least $18,000 to hire a lawyer and an energy consultant.

Avangrid protested, but according to state officials, Snell gets to stay on the siting board unless he chooses to recuse himself. For now, that's not happening. Avangrid spokesman Paul Copleman wouldn't say if the company's planning to push its case any further.

Snell denies that he has any conflicts of interest. He said he's more focused on the conflicts that arose in Hopkinton and Parishville since the wind farm was first proposed six years ago.

"Unfortunately, it’s dividing our community," Snell said. "People who have leases aren’t speaking to people who don’t have leases. It’s affecting families, as well. It’s a sad thing, but hopefully, it’ll get resolved."

Snell has promised to keep an open mind as he listens to testimony from both sides. When it's time to make a decision — whenever that will be — he'll cast one vote out of seven on New York’s energy siting board.

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