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A stunning reversal

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At this week's Clayton Town Council meeting, the developers of the proposed Horse Creek Wind Farm must have thought they were watching a replay of the 1929 Rose Bowl wherein University of California, Berkeley, center Roy Riegels scooped up a fumble and ran 65 yards in the wrong direction against Georgia Tech. At Wednesday night's meeting, Supervisor Justin A. Taylor, after nearly relentless support of commercial wind projects, suddenly offered a series of amendments to the town's zoning law regarding wind projects that surely must have flummoxed wind power advocates everywhere.

The amendments, if accepted, will probably send the Horse Creek project back to the drawing board or beyond. Atlantic Wind LLC, a subsidiary of Spanish energy giant Iberdrola, has submitted a draft environmental impact statement to the Clayton Planning Board and review of that document has begun. But the amendments proposed by Mr. Taylor appear, at least on the surface, to throw a serious monkey wrench into Atlantic Wind's plans.

The most significant physical changes would restructure the setback requirements in a big way, changing setbacks for nonparticipating properties from 1,250 feet from the residence to 1,250 feet from the property boundary. Thus, a property owner with a large parcel could find his residence removed by several thousand feet or more from the nearest tower – rather than 1,250 feet. And it would remove a significant amount of property from Atlantic Wind's available acreage. Adding to this, the proposal would also remove the ability of the developer to "buy" smaller setbacks from a neighboring property; the law would be uniformly enforced with no opt-out provision.

There is little doubt those two changes will affect the proposed footprint of the Horse Creek project. That will mean a significant amendment to the draft environmental impact statement may well be required – if developers choose to move forward at all.

If this weren't enough, the supervisor's proposed amendments would also require wind farm developers to make whole owners in the wind overlay district who cannot sell their property for at least its assessed value. A variant of this provision is cropping up in a lot of municipalities to address fears of dropping property values, and there is little doubt that it will be challenged in court somewhere by some wind-farm developer, or resident seeking wind-farm revenue. But for now, such provisions are an enormous wild card that many energy companies won't want to have played against them – including Iberdrola, which has already informed the town of Hammond that its interest in developing there will be withdrawn if such a codicil becomes part of town law.

The proposal also would require that 75 percent of wind project employees be hired from Northern New York, and that 75 percent of wind turbine products be manufactured in the U.S. Let's look at Maple Ridge Wind Farm in Lewis County to gauge the likelihood of this: The primary contractors for that job were D.H. Blattner and Sons, Minnesota; Alliant Energy, Wisconsin; and The Vestas Group, Denmark. Subcontractors included Delaney Construction of Mayfield and Tetra Tech of Saratoga Springs. Clearly, erecting wind towers is a highly specialized project that Billy the local electrician is not likely to be qualified for.

And a review of top 10 turbine parts manufacturers include only one from this country – General Electric, at number three – with the top five also including Vestas, Denmark, Sinovel and Goldwing, both of China, and Enercon, Germany. This provision alone may stop wind-farm development because the requisite parts simply may not be available from U.S. firms at any given moment.

Finally, the amendments contain a provision that might have implications for Clayton taxpayers who, Mr. Taylor may not have considered, pay more in school taxes than they do in town and county taxes combined. The amendment would require that 40 percent of any payment-in-lieu-of-taxes agreement or host community benefit go to the town. This would require either the county or the school district, or both, to agree to a grossly reduced share of these payments. Using 2010 figures, since the 2011 school tax figure is not yet available, the town of Clayton takes 7.7 percent of the taxes paid by town property owners, the county receives 38.5 percent and the school district's share is 53.8 percent. Clearly, if the town demands 40 percent of any PILOT, somebody else is going to have to give up their due.

The Horse Creek draft environmental impact statement projects a PILOT worth $768,000 annually. For the Galloo Island Wind Farm, should that project ever be built, the PILOT begins at $2.14 million per year and gets bigger with certain performance benefits and an annual 2.5 percent escalation. For that PILOT, the taxing jurisdictions agreed to 50 percent for Sackets Harbor Central School, 35 percent for Jefferson County and 15 percent for the town – and this deal subsidized the town at the school district's expense. In Clayton, if the town demands its 40 percent, the school district could see a significant diminishment of tax revenue from a project that the developers promise is going to lift all boats. How ironic it would be if the Clayton taxpayers who now pay a town tax rate of $1.30 per thousand and a school tax rate of $9.13 per thousand saw their town taxes fall to nothing – but concurrently had a school tax increase of $3 or $4 per thousand.

Mr. Taylor's bolt from the blue has elated antiwind forces and almost certainly dismayed Atlantic Wind and the people with whom the company has lease agreements. The setback change is rational and an important protection for nonparticipating property owners; the attempt to compensate for dropping property values is a fair-minded concept. The other provisions, on the other hand, seem destined to remove Clayton from consideration as a site by wind-farm developers. The town certainly has that right, and the majority of taxpayers may endorse this. If they do, this could be a stunning turnaround in Clayton's wind-farm future.

But for developers, it must seem like Mr. Taylor, like Roy Riegels, suddenly has taken the ball and headed pall-mall in the wrong direction. "Wrong Way" Roy was tackled on the 1-yard line by his own quarterback, but the subsequent safety Cal-Berkeley gave up yielded an 8-7 win for Georgia Tech. If nobody tackles Mr. Taylor's proposal on its way to the end zone, the same fate may befall wind farms in Clayton. And Mr. Taylor will have instantly changed from being a staunch supporter of wind power to the hero of the antiwind folks.

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