County deals with present and future COVID-19 funding

The seal of Oswego County in the county legislative chambers. Randy Pellis/Oswego County News

OSWEGO COUNTY – NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s goal of renewable, carbon-free electrical self-sufficiency faces state-wide opposition in light of its means to that end, namely, a proposal that could force massive wind and solar plants on towns and counties whether they want them or not.

At its March 12 meeting, the Oswego County Legislature unanimously opposed Cuomo’s Accelerated Renewable Energy Growth and Community Benefit Act, “which despite its name, would negatively impact renewable energy host communities by removing local home-rule rights and controls, and by fast-tracking wind and solar projects that could potentially harm local economies and environments,” according to District 4 Legislator and Chairman of the Government, Courts & Consumer Affairs Committee David Holst’s unanimously passed resolution.

As an example of such fast-tracking “to the great detriment of Oswego County’s economy and environment,” Holst cites “Atlantic Wind LLC’s proposed 350 megawatt Mad River Wind Farm in the town of Worth in Jefferson County and the town of Redfield in Oswego County – a project that would clear-cut great swaths of 20,000 acres of pristine Tug Hill forest recreation areas, and place in danger of contamination the headwaters of the Salmon River, one of North America’s top sport fisheries and the region’s economic driver.”

Holst’s resolution goes on to fault Cuomo’s proposed “misleadingly named” act for being added to the state budget proposal only after budget hearings were completed, giving state legislators insufficient time to examine the proposal and identify its negative consequences.”

The resolution also claims the proposed cct goes too far by essentially gutting Article 10 (the present process by which wind and solar power plants are sited and approved) and empowers the state to force medium and large wind and solar projects into local communities that don’t want them.”

The resolution further claims the proposed cct would:

“Create a new state bureaucracy to handle the permitting and siting of wind and solar projects, which would not be responsive or accountable to the local communities impacted;

“Override and nullify county local laws and town, city, and village ordinances that were adopted by local governments to responsibly guide development of energy projects within their jurisdictions, in accordance with the wishes of their citizens and businesses;

“Remove the voices of the local citizens and their elected representatives from the siting process;

“Endanger the ability of local governments to receive fair property tax revenues from renewable energy facilities;

“Establish undefined and unquantified host community benefits and create workforce training programs, ‘subject to available funding,’ which are geared toward non-existent green energy jobs; and

“Allow corporations whose proposals are already going through the Article 10 process to opt into the new fast-track process, thereby avoiding legitimate and valid objections and concerns of the local impacted communities and circumventing vital processes that hold project proposers accountable.”

After the meeting, Holst spoke on the Mad River Wind Farm project.

“Fort Drum is completely against it,” he said, “because the towers are going to be so tall, they’re going to interfere with the radar. I think they’re going to be 700 feet tall.”

And then, Holst noted, there’s the question of the transmission lines necessary to carry that wind-generated electricity somewhere, and the land that would require, all of which has not been disclosed.

Furthermore, he said, “the town of Redfield is totally against it.” And as Cuomo’s bill stands, the town gets “nothing” out of it.

But a unanimously-passed resolution by County Legislator John Martino should change that.

NY exempted wind and solar farms from taxation in Section 487 of its Real Property Tax Law. That same section also allowed that counties, “by local law, may provide that no exemption under the said legislation shall be applicable within its jurisdiction.” At its March 12 meeting, the Legislature unanimously voted to “exercise its statutory right” and “opt out” of those tax exemptions, thereby making wind and solar farms taxable. With regard to the Mad River Wind Farm, both the town of Redfield and the county would share that tax revenue.

And lastly, Holst noted, the 20,000 acres the wind farm would clear-cut are part of the Salmon River watershed and could jeopardize those waters, the source of a major fishing industry within the county at potentially a great economic cost.

County Administrator Philip Church concurred with Holst’s opinion of Cuomo’s proposal.

“In terms of the legislation being proposed by the governor,” Church said, “the opposition is that it’s another assault on home rule. We are a home rule state. There’s a home rule process for things like taxation and siting of facilities. According to the governor’s office, this is an attempt to streamline and make things more efficient. But in doing so, it takes the ability and the rights of the local community away to say whether they want something of that nature here or not. The proposed wind farm at Mad River is at the headwaters of the Salmon River, which we rely on economically, because it’s one of the top sport fishing destinations in the world. And to clear-cut a good chunk of the Tug Hill region in the Salmon River headwaters will have a detrimental effect on the fishery, particularly if you get a spill from one of the windmills. (According to Holst, each windmill holds 600 gallons of oil.) We don’t know what the effect on the aquifer would be. And these are not necessarily things that the distant bureaucracy in Albany might appreciate when they’re streamlining and fast-tracking companies’ proposals to do these types of projects.”

Looking beyond Oswego County, Church said, “This is pretty much opposed statewide by local communities because they don’t want their rights taken away from them.”

Under Cuomo’s new siting and permitting proposal, once a developer submits an application and the newly-created Office of Renewable Energy Permitting determines the application is complete, a 60-day public comment period and a public hearing would follow. Municipalities hosting the project would also submit a notice to the office as to whether the project complies with their local laws during that period.

“General expressions of disagreement with or general opposition,” to a project during the public comment period will not be considered by the office in the permitting decision. Only comments that raise a “substantive and significant issue” will be taken into account and could trigger a hearing.

In other words, if a community simply doesn’t like the idea of a field-full of 700-foot-high windmills looming over their landscape, that will not be considered reason enough to prevent the project from going forward. Their objection must be more “substantive and significant” than that in the eyes of the Office of Renewable Energy Permitting.

It might, therefore, be thought that an issue such as the impact of a wind or solar farm on an endangered species would meet that “substantive and significant” requirement.

The legislation does provide for the creation of a fund bankrolled by project owners required to decrease their project’s impact on endangered species and their habitats as a condition to their siting permit.

That may sound good, but on closer inspection, here’s what the proposal says:

“In its review of an application for a permit to develop a major renewable energy facility, the office shall identify those site-specific environmental impacts, if any, that may be caused or exacerbated by a specific proposed major renewable energy facility and are unable to be addressed in accordance with the uniform standards and conditions. Where appropriate, the department shall draft site specific permit terms and conditions for such impacts, including provisions for the mitigation thereof, taking into account the CLCPA (Climate Leadership and Community Protection Act) targets and the environmental benefits of the proposed major renewable energy facility. Such terms and conditions may provide for an applicant’s payment of a specified amount in lieu of physical mitigation. Amounts paid by an applicant pursuant to such terms and conditions for mitigation of impacts to endangered and threatened species shall be deposited into the endangered and threatened species mitigation fund established pursuant to section ninety-nine-hh of the state finance law.”

In other words, if a wind or solar project threatens an endangered species, rather than actually doing anything about it, the project’s owners may simply buy off their responsibility by paying into “the endangered and threatened species mitigation fund.” George Orwell, of 1984 fame, would be proud.

Gov. Cuomo’s updated green energy goals that became law on Jan. 1, were the impetus for the new siting law. The goals include that 70% of the state’s energy production be from renewable sources by 2030, as opposed to the previous goal of 50%, with 100% from renewables by 2040.

“New York state has risen to the occasion [created by climate change] by enacting the strongest laws in the nation to protect and preserve our environment,” Cuomo said in a prepared statement. “This legislation will help achieve a more sustainable future, invigorating the green economy and reaffirming New York’s position as a market leader with a revamped process for building and delivering renewable energy projects faster.”

Julie Abbass and Marcus Wolf contributed to this article.

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