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Seven years of spinning turbines have brought windfall to Lewis County communities

Iberdrola Renewables

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 Maple Ridge Wind Farm has brought some big changes to its community.   

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 across 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 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 says.

Inside, Steckley shows off new classrooms for students with disabilies, new science labs, and a very modern-looking two-level art space, complete with gallery.

State aid paid for part of these renovations, but the local community's share came from the wind turbines spinning on a ridge a few miles from the school. The Maple Ridge Wind Farm generates about $3.5 million a year for the school district.

And the school district hasn't been the only beneficiary. A payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement with seven taxing jurisdictions 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 a year in taxes. A developer said the majority of the project's 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,” Thisse says. “And so he got our attention.”

But the project ended up doubling in size and depending on the year, the town receives between $800,000 and $1.2 million. That money has largely gone into infrastructure upgrades like road paving, and renovating the historic town hall. And Martinsburg is setting up a reserve account to keep taxes at 2005 levels into the future.

Lewis County is making similar upgrades. But Michael Tabolt, chairman of the Legislature, says the county's economy benefits in other ways besides taxes – about 30 residents work for the wind farm. And 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.

Further north; BP's proposed wind project in the town of Cape Vincent has many residents concerned about the impact on their property values. A recent Clarkson University study found that wind farms in two other upstate New York counties depressed property values between 10 and 20 percent – but Lewis County seems immune to that problem. Economics professor Martin Heintzelman says that might be because of differences in the landscape or setbacks from homes, or “It's also possible that 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.”

That's not true of everyone, however. Gordon Yancey 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 attracted Yancey here when he built his inn 24 years ago: the view is spectacular.

Well, Yancey would say it was spectacular. Now, scores of 260-foot wind turbines sprout from the fields, 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 feelings for a landscape he's known for decades have.

Back in Martinsburg, Town Supervisor Thisse says the community as a whole seems to think the price it's paid for the wind farm was worth it.

“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.”

For Cape Vincent residents, that kind of change of scenery so close to the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario shorelines might be a different calculation.

Reporting by the Innovation Trail is supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting. Visit innovationtrail.org.