Wind gets personal

Sep 22, 2010

Wind developers have been crawling all over the small towns in upstate New York, looking for enough land to justify building turbines.  They started scouting East Meredith, near Oneonta about four years ago.  At that point, wind wasn’t even on Ron Bailey’s radar.

Bailey lives in an old farmhouse with his wife Sue.  He was approached by a wind company about leasing his land for turbines.  Initially, he was enthusiastic.

“We actually signed a lease,” he says but he can’t remember for exactly how much.  He guesses $7,000, his wife bids him down, saying she remembers it being much lower

But at the time the agreement was signed, plans for wind turbines going up in sleepy East Meredith were shaking things up.

Even though it’s a place that the town supervisor says “truly wants alternative energy,” East Meredith split into pro and anti-wind factions, and not along predictable lines. Sue Bailey was willing to go along with Ron’s support of alternative energy on their property until she made a trip to a nearby wind farm, which turned her around. She hated the noise the turbines made, and what’s called shadow flicker: the moving shadows thrown by the turbine blades.

“I started nagging,” she admits. “I think Ron hated to come down to breakfast in the morning because he knew I was going to start in again.”

Ron Bailey eventually became one of the leading opponents of wind turbines in East Meredith. He says there’s just not room for turbines far enough from people’s homes. He helped write the local ordinance that effectively barred industrial sized turbines from the town.

“In theory I remain a proponent of wind turbines,” says Bailey, “but …where, that’s the important issue. And that’s NIMBY isn’t it?  But why not?”

Nimby, or “not in my backyard,” is a slur frequently leveled at wind opponents.  They want the energy, but don’t want to pay for it with their view.

Lawmakers in Litchfield, southeast of Utica, are considering regulations on wind projects.  Turbines come up at every public meeting, whether or not they’re on the agenda.  The debate gets tense.

Adrienne Albin, a self-described tree hugger, was so disgusted with the reaction to her support for turbines, that she stormed out of a meeting in August.

“I don’t like when people hang deer in their trees during hunting season, but they have the right to,” says Albin. “They have the right to put them there. I mean would people rather have a jail with pedophiles come in, or a nuclear power plant? There are worse things than these things. ”

Albin says income from commercial wind could help support the rural farming community. She’s a special ed teacher who drives an hour to Boonville to get to work. She hates watching teacher layoffs and she thinks more money coming in from turbines could give her more options, closer to home.

”Litchfield is largely rural, largely farms,” Albin notes. “[With turbines] there’s more money for the town, more money for the school, more money for the county.”

Albin grew up in Litchfield. Her mother was one of 10 children, so local politics are family politics. But regardless of who opposes turbines, her mind’s made up.

“They don’t scare me, my brain doesn’t turn to mush, and I don’t pee my pants,” Albin declares.

Back on his front porch in East Meredith, Ron Bailey says wind becomes so personal in a small town that in the long term, it can take a long time to mend bridges with opponents.

“It’s like it was about wind and it wasn’t about wind. These things get mixed up in other things.”

Stanley Fish also visited East Meredith this week on the New York Times opinion page, and brought in the other hot, upstate energy topic: gas drilling in the Marcellus Shale. Ron Bailey is confident he won’t see turbines go up in East Meredith, and he will not lease to natural gas drillers. But as Fish notes, as that as long as energy developers look for room upstate, these same arguments won’t go away.

This story was a joint reporting effort between Emma Jacobs and Ryan Morden.