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In Clayton, wind energy is a tough sell, even for environmentalists

Lawrence Sinclair
Wolfe Island Wind Farm seen from Kingston, ON.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo wants the state to get half of its energy from renewable sources in the next 15 years. That has wind developers eyeing the farm land along the St. Lawrence River and Lake Ontario.

One energy company has revived an interest in constructing a wind farm in Jefferson County that would extend across the towns of Clayton, Orleans, Brownville and Lyme.

Residents are divided over the idea of wind in the Thousand Islands. Local environmental groups are weighing in too.

Four years ago, the energy company Iberdrola Renewables walked away from a plan to erect 48 wind towers a few miles from the St. Lawrence River. Clayton town officials thought the project was off the table for good. But a few months ago, Iberdrola began reviving the Horse Creek Wind Farm. Clayton officials moved fast. They proposed banning all wind projects in the town indefinitely.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Clayton's town board hears public comment on their proposed six-month moratorium on wind development.

Robert Cantwell, who is on the town board, worries that an industrial wind farm could disrupt the area’s two cash cows – summer tourism and Fort Drum.

“I guess it was just us stepping forward and voicing our opinion,” he said.

Turns out residents told the town board to take a step back.

“By us standing up and posturing and proposing the out-right ban to see what the community wanted, they spoke, we listened. It’s not exactly what they wanted,” Cantwell said.

Those who support wind development say renewable energy is the future and Clayton needs to get on board. Those against wind advised the town board that a ban was too harsh. Iberdrola would fight back hard and the town would lose.

Now, Clayton's town board is considering a six-month moratorium on wind development. They need more time to hear people out and write up a zoning law that will restrict where turbines can go.

Resident Ken Knapp says he doesn’t want a wind farm near his home.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Ken Knapp lives north of Depauville, near the town of Clayton. He says he's been fighting the Horse Creek Wind Farm since developers first took an interest in the land 10 years ago.

“Most of us aren’t saying wind energy is a bad thing. You just have to put it in the right place and this just isn’t the right place,” he said.

The "not-in-my-backyard" argument looms large in Clayton. Now local environmental groups are speaking out against the Horse Creek Wind Farm. Save The River, a non-profit that works to preserve the ecology of the St. Lawrence River, supports renewable energy but only when it’s scaled to fit the right location. They think the Horse Creek Wind Farm is too large. 

Jake Tibbles, director of the Thousand Island Land Trust, agrees.

“In the case of the Horse Creek Wind Farm there is a good reason to say not in our backyard because it’s one of the most important back yards that we have in the United States,” he said.

Tibbles says the Thousand Island region is a major migratory passage for birds. In the wrong place, wind turbines and their sweeping blades can kill thousands of birds a year. Tibbles thinks about that when he sees the wind farm on nearby Wolfe Island.

“How many bats have they killed today? Who is tracking that data? And are they making it known?”

Tibbles says his group’s mission is to conserve land. An industrial wind farm would transform it. He says the turbines on Wolfe Island are a constant reminder of that.

“I notice them on the tree line. I notice them when the sun sets," Tibbles says.

Iberdrola say they follow strict guidelines from U.S. Fish and Wildlife to minimize birds and bat deaths.

Credit Julia Botero / WRVO News
Phillip Scott is a retired dairy farmer. Iberdrola plans to erect a wind turbine on his land.

Paul Copeland, spokesperson with Iberdrola, says he understands why people are concerned.

“It’s our job as a developer to work with folks and to point to the way they benefit from wind projects.”

Copeland says the company currently has 30 lease agreements with farmers for use of their land. A turbine or two on their land, Copeland says, will help farmers sustain their livelihoods.

Wanda Collins lives near Clayton and says she has no problem with turbines.

“I think we really need to think through, what is our part in this whole area?"

Collin’s home is powered by solar panels and a wind generator.  

“I love going to Clayton, I love the area, love the river. It’s all absolutely beautiful. However I also think sometimes as people we think well the other guy has got to change. And sometimes I think what we should do is we should think it through and say, what is our part in changing things?”

The Jefferson County Planning Board has until May 7 to review the town’s proposal for the six-month moratorium. Ultimately, the Public Service Commission will have to approve construction of the Horse Creek Wind Farm. The town’s zoning law will play a part in their decision.