Pending appeal, a decision handed down in state Supreme Court Monday could spell the beginning of the end of the proposed $775 million Alle-Catt Wind Farm.
State Supreme Court Judge Terrence Parker ruled the Freedom Town Board acted illegally in approving its new wind law at the urging of Invenergy, the developer of the proposed 340-megawatt wind farm spread across five towns.
“This is a win for all Freedom residents,” said Stephanie Milks, president of Freedom United, the group of industrial wind turbine opponents. “It offers an opportunity for better protections in the wind law. The current board majority neglected to follow appropriate laws and procedures.”
Freedom United brought the suit, successfully alleging that the Freedom Town Board wrongfully disregarded the Cattaraugus County Planning Board, which asked the town to rescind the wind law in order to address whether any new wind law is consistent with the county’s Comprehensive Plan.
The Comprehensive Plan targets new industrial development in the county’s population centers, but recommends rural areas be kept rural, as their amenities support seasonal and other recreational use and maintain property values and the tourism industry.
The Town of Freedom sought to encourage industrial wind farms.
“As the court concludes, the town was unable to provide any research or any results of its deliberations on the many issues raised by a decision to industrialize the town,” said Gary Abraham, one of the attorneys for the group. “The county recognized this, rescinded an early approval and directed the town to rescind its law and start the review over the right way.”
Abraham said attorneys for Farmersville United plan to file a similar lawsuit against the Farmersville Town Board, which passed a new wind law modeled after the Alle-Catt requirements in September.
Ginger Schröder of Farmersville, the other attorney in the Freedom lawsuit, pointed to the court’s finding that the town provided the county with no more than “the proposed local law, nothing else. There were no environmental forms, studies, data, etc. They just disregarded the law.”
Geoff Milks, who is running for Freedom Town Board and is a member of Freedom United, said residents are “thrilled” by the ruling.
“Supervisor Randy Lester poo-poohed this lawsuit as baseless, but that just reflects his attitude to the law in general,” he said.
Freedom Town Councilman John Hill agreed, saying, “Lester has sold us down the river. Now Freedom taxpayers will have to pay the legal bills for his failed efforts to ensure a handful of landowners get rich at everyone’s expense.”
Contacted by the Times Herald for comment, Lester declined to discuss the ruling.
“I’m not sure I want to discuss it with the newspaper,” he said.
Alle-Catt project manager Valessa Souter-Kline replied to an email seeking comment, stating: "The judge's ruling pertains to an old law that is superseded by the town's ensuing actions. We look forward to continuing to partner with the communities participating in the Alle-Catt Wind Farm, which will bring in over $9.1 million annually to support local towns, schools, and families."
According to the decision by Parker, an Allegany County judge acting as a Cattaraugus County Supreme Court Justice, the Town of Freedom must now start the process of considering a local law all over. Until it does so, the new local law is nullified and the town’s 2007 wind law remains in effect.
That means a height limit of 450 feet instead of 600 feet approved under the new law, which the court overturned.
“The same thing will happen in Farmersville,” Abraham stated, which he said will cause Invenergy to ask the Siting Commission for a waiver.
Freedom is unlikely to approve a new wind law before the November election because there are currently only four board members, who are split 2-2 on the Invenergy wind law. Wind turbine opponents hope to win enough votes for candidates opposed to the wind farm to bury the wind law that increased the height of turbines from 450 to 600 feet.
“It’s one nail in the coffin,” Abraham said. “Another one would be if the (Cattaraugus County) Industrial Development Agency refused to grant Alle-Catt tax breaks.”