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Did this town just 'zone out' wind farms?

Lauren Rosenthal

Hopkinton, a small town in rural St. Lawrence County, just staked out a tough position when it comes to wind farms. The town board approved a strict zoning law that will require wind farms to stay within one specific corner of town — but about a half-mile away from people’s homes and the boundary of the Adirondack Park in New York State's North Country. That's causing problems for a wind project that's been in development by Avangrid Renewables, an international energy company with wind farms in Herkimer and Lewis counties, for years. It also serves as a lesson for other towns considering wind farms.

Anti-wind activists: "Thanks for not protecting us."

A lot of locals have been skeptical about Avangrid's proposed North Ridge Wind Farm in rural St. Lawrence County. Several people formed a community group called Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation. Over the past two years, they've plastered the area with anti-wind yard signs and taken out ads criticizing the project in local papers.

But at a public meeting in mid-April, it seemed like the wind farm scored a big win. Town board member Sue Lyon spoke in favor of wind development. She said Hopkinton couldn’t afford to turn its back on a project that, according to Avangrid's estimates, is worth at least $38 million to the local economy.

"Last year at budget time we couldn’t even buy a lawn mower," Lyon said. "I’ve been thinking about driving around the town — seeing the properties that are down — what this could do for the town. What kind of revenue it could bring into the town."

Lyon was the deciding vote that night against a strict new zoning law for wind farms. Anti-wind activists in the room were furious. Several of them got up and left the meeting immediately after the vote. "Thanks a lot for not protecting us," one man shouted back over his shoulder. "This is a joke. You should be ashamed of yourselves."

Lyon and another board member, Steven Jackson, promised to convene yet another public meeting, this time bringing together stakeholders in the wind project and Avangrid executives. But over the next few days, something else happened: Lyon and Jackson changed their minds.

Within days, a sudden reversal

Credit Lauren Rosenthal / NCPR News
Avangrid spokesman Paul Copleman says the company has signed leases with for 40 landowners in Parishville and Hopkinton. He's pictured here at a public meeting in March 2017.

The town board held another vote on the wind regulations in late April. They passed unanimously. Now, Avangrid spokesman Paul Copleman said the project is in limbo. "Uh, the local law and the way it was written effectively zoned out wind in Hopkinton," Copleman said. 

Avangrid had plans to install roughly 27 turbines in Hopkinton. The company already signed leases with local landowners and "good neighbor agreements" with people living nearby. To help "share the benefits" even further and ease criticism that the project would only benefit a select few in Hopkinton, Copleman said, Avangrid recently offered annual payments to nearly everyone else in town to help cover their electric bills — up to $30,000 over the next 30 years.

The next step would have been an in-depth review by state regulators, who technically have the power to overrule local zoning laws like Hopkinton’s. But that process is still pretty new — and Copleman said the company may not get to that point.

"I mean, if the town in the very near term can examine some of the changes that we have recommended to the zoning ordinance, we may consider re-engaging with Hopkinton," Copleman said."But the vote seemed to be a pre-emptive rejection."

If Hopkinton leaves the wind regulations intact, Copleman said the company will "likely" start looking for other locations in New York State that would welcome a wind farm.

"I say we divided ourselves."

This isn’t the first time that Avangrid has had trouble in St. Lawrence County — or with this particular project. The original plan was to build a wind farm in two towns: Hopkinton and Parishville, just down the road. But Parishville also passed zoning restrictions on wind farms and struggled to reach a financial agreement with developers.

This winter, Avangrid announced it was dropping Parishville from the project altogether. Some officials in Hopkinton have said that’s not what they want for their town.

In a statement, board member Steve Parker said there may be room to negotiate on the law — to keep the wind farm alive, to make sure local people still have some say in it and to help heal a divided community. "I say we divided ourselves with our own refusal to listen and our own lack of respect for each other and our own lack of respect for each other," Jackson said. "I think now is the time for that to change."

It's not clear when the negotiations would start. In the meantime, Avangrid's spokesman said the company will still have a presence in Hopkinton — maintaining a field office and sending employees to public meetings.

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