On Wednesday I drove directly from work to Kingston (with a stop, of course, at the excellent Benny’s Pizzeria in Stone Ridge). I arrived a bit early and walked around the streets, which was pleasant: the town is quiet but beautiful, a place I have long loved. Sometime after seven o’clock I went to the County Office building, where I attended a meeting of the Ulster County Planning Board.
The meeting was held in a courtroom – the Surrogate Court – which (like our legal system, I suppose) was an odd mix of old and new. Two raised daises, made entirely of wood, sat (I suppose) the judge and the witnesses, while a long wooden barricade kept the public from the floor of the court proper. All this was set in a modern office room, with fluorescent lights, drop ceiling, sheetrock walls, and carpeting. Behind the barricade was a long wooden table where sat the Ulster County Planning Board – a large group, filling up the entire table, mostly men, there must have been nearly twenty of them. They were happy to see each other, and joked and smiled like men who knew each other, but they also had a deadly seriousness about them, like people who were used to getting things done.
There were copies of the agenda available to the public in the public’s seating area. I couldn’t believe the agenda – the Town of Denning’s wind turbine issue, which had taken up so much of our time in town, was merely one of perhaps thirty projects to be reviewed by the Board in this one evening! And project reviews – “zoning referrals” – were merely one line in the agenda which had many other items, such as election of officers and many other things! And the Board moved through the agenda, with astonishing competence – it never seemed that they were ramming items through. They were moving quickly but surely.
There were six people in the audience, five of us from Denning to discuss the wind turbine. The Board knew that we were there, as the Chairman mentioned that he expected several guests that evening from the Town of Denning, and he specifically noted that we should pass on the Board’s earnest desire to have a sitting member from Denning, which is I believe the only township not represented on the County Zoning Board (Kingston is almost an hour and half drive from Claryville). The Town of Denning has generally considered it too much of a bother.
The engineer of the wind turbine, Sherret Chase, gave a presentation, including a video. The Board was almost curt with him, but efficiently so, and whenever he wanted to speak about the wind industry in general they said, “Keep your comments to this project, please.” After Mr. Chase’s presentation others were allowed to speak. I said two or three sentences and sat down. Then a young man – I believe a professional staffer whose job it is to investigate zoning issues in the county and make recommendations to the board – spoke about the wind turbine project.
In short he saw several problems. He said first of all it was not clear legally what type of variance this was – legally he felt it was probably a “use variance” – allowing a residential property to be producer of energy rather than a mere residence – which would require proof of economic hardship (not applicable in this case). Secondly the structure was so large – more than five times higher than the current maximum size for buildings in the town – it would be a “type one variance,” in other words a very significant case. For such a variance a “coordinated review” would have to be completed, including a “visual survey” – in essence putting a crane on-site for a week and taking pictures from everywhere. A “noise report” would also have to be completed.
Furthermore, he noted that Denning had no laws regarding wind turbines specifically and probably should. If this was treated as an “area variance” and wind turbines treated as “accessories to residential living,” then he said by the law everyone would be able to have one, “and I’m not sure that’s what people are going to want to see.” There was discussion of the State Park Boundary, which does have some cell towers in it, which had been determined by the state to be “visually discordant but ultimately acceptable.” There was discussion of the difference between cell towers and wind turbines, both in terms of appearance and public benefit. In general I was impressed by the competence and perceptiveness of the board, which seemed to have seen and thought of everything already.
These were the staffer’s recommendations: 1) determine what type of variance this was 2) complete the necessary steps for a type one variance 3) develop town laws for wind turbines and resolve this issue legislatively. These recommendations were unanimously adopted by the board and they kept moving.
For those of us who oppose this turbine, this was undoubtedly a victory. I sensed that Denning’s own board was not too well disposed to this project, and I feared a unanimous approval from the County would sway their thoughts. But in fact the County board treated the issue as large and significant, where a fearful tread might be best, and the 177-foot-tall moving structure potentially undesirable for the remotest and wildest part of their county.
Afterwards the Denning folk cut out and headed for the nearest bar, as is our wont, before the long drive home.
After Thanksgiving at my mother’s house I spent a few days in the city. They were fine days – I saw a stream of friends, went to the New York Public Library, saw a former student (who has become a teacher himself), and spent probably ten hours playing with young nieces, nephews, or cousins. (I played them the Florida-Georgia Line song “Cruise” with Nelly and we danced around like maniacs and had a blast.) I went to Montclair for the first time. I found a copy of the Burton translation of Giovanni Battista Basile’s Pentameron - for eight dollars in hardback.
But the whole time I was sensitive to a kind of insanity or unhealthiness in my mood – a dissatisfaction with who I was, with what life was, with everything, in general. I plotted and schemed ways to make me more loved, to make life better, to deliver myself from who I was and break into something that maybe would satisfy my sense of who I ought to be. I felt sick of playing with other people’s children. I felt sick of visiting nice couples who loved each other. I wanted love and children for myself. I wanted something other than what I had.
I drove back north Sunday, near tears as I often am on that drive, for whatever reason. I felt the thumping of the truck under me as I drove over the Hudson – I suppose they’ll never fix the pavement on the Tappan Zee ever, will they? There will just be a new bridge. I came back to my cabin in the late afternoon and found it 31 degrees inside. The water I had left there had all frozen. (Thank goodness I returned after first leaving to put antifreeze in the toilet, or else I would have had to install a new toilet – not for the first time, either.) It was dark and cold, the very image of loneliness.
And yet, within a few hours, sitting before my fire, everything had changed from loneliness to solitude. I’m not even sure I can explain how this works. But when I woke up the next morning in my cold cabin I was in a completely different place. I went to work at the Maple Syrup farm – this is my first full week there – and was happy all day, outside in the cold. It was snowing all morning on the mountaintop where we were working. I had forgotten my hat – left it in the city, I suppose – but I didn’t care. I came home and made my pasta dinner on my wood stove, and then worked on my Arabian Nights book. When I went outside to clean my dinner plates I stopped in my tracks, just standing there on my deck, hardly comprehending the beauty that was mine – the darkness all around me, and the stars of night my companions. It is almost as if some genius astronomer-contractor had built the cabin to face Orion’s nightly winter rising over Red Hill. Someone might have wandered the whole world to see a sight so beautiful, and so perfect a vantage point from which to see it. I had merely happened on it. Who was I to ask for more than this? How could I? If no one loved it the way I did, what then? Did that mean I could bear to be parted from it?
I went back inside, and opening at random my volume of Thoreau, I read:
However mean your life is, meet it and live it; do not shun it and call it hard names. It is not so bad as you are. It looks poorest when you are richest. The fault-finder will find faults even in paradise. Love your life, poor as it is. You may perhaps have some pleasant, thrilling, glorious hours, even in a poorhouse… Cultivate poverty like a garden herb, like sage. Do not trouble yourself much to get new things, whether clothes or friends. Turn the old; return to them. Things do not change; we change. Sell your clothes and keep your thoughts. God will see that you do not want society. If I were confined to a corner of a garret all my days, like a spider, the world would be just as large to me while I had my thoughts about me. The philosopher said: “From an army of three divisions one can take away its general, and put it in disorder; from the man the most abject and vulgar one cannot take away his thought.” Do not seek so anxiously to be developed, to subject yourself to many influences to be played on; it is all dissipation. Humility like darkness reveals the heavenly lights. The shadows of poverty and meanness gather around us, “and lo! creation widens to our view.” We are often reminded that if there were bestowed on us the wealth of Croesus, our aims must still be the same, and our means essentially the same. Moreover, if you are restricted in your range by poverty, if you cannot buy books and newspapers, for instance, you are but confined to the most significant and vital experiences; you are compelled to deal with the material which yields the most sugar and the most starch. It is life near the bone where it is sweetest. You are defended from being a trifler. No man loses ever on a lower level by magnanimity on a higher.
And I felt so happy to be alive, and so happy to have precisely the life I have. The feeling has not yet left me.
The Ulster County Planning Board has its meeting to review the wind turbine here in Denning on Wednesday the 4th. I expect to attend. The online petition opposing the turbine, to be built inside the “forever wild” Catskill State Park, is here. Emails for people on the UCPB are firstname.lastname@example.org, and email@example.com. I wrote the letter below expressing my thoughts on the issue:
To the Ulster County Planning Board:
There is an request before the Zoning Board of Appeals of the Town of Denning to grant a variance from current zoning law for the construction of a 177’ tall wind turbine. The Ulster County Zoning Board has expressed a desire to examine this issue and advise the Denning ZBA before it makes its decision. I urge the Ulster County Zoning Board to advise against the project.
I write as a conservationist. I support the wind power industry, but I do not believe any wind-power project should be placed inside Catskill State Park. I especially believe that such projects cannot be allowed to be exempt from local zoning law, which would be a horrible precedent for the entire region. As John Judge, President of the Appalachian Mountain Club recently wrote, “Even renewable energy sources like wind can have negative environmental consequences. Inappropriately sited wind power projects, and the maintenance roads and other infrastructure that comes with them, threaten mountain ecosystems and compromise the wilderness experience.”
The Zoning Board should look at this case as but the first of many to come, which makes it all the more important to keep zoning law in place. The entire Catskills region offers a perfect staging-ground for wind energy production: remote ridgetops. Mr. Hirsch’s property, where the proposed turbine would be built, is but one of many such large ridgetop properties throughout the Town of Denning and the Catskills generally. The Zoning Board of Appeals in the Town of Denning is legally empowered to grant variances only when “the circumstances applying to the property are unique and do not generally apply to other properties in the district” (section 7.6.1). This is far from the case in this instance. Whatever is done here will become a precedent for the entire Catskills State Park.
Some may applaud the possibility of such development. One of the Councilmen in the Town of Denning, Mike Dean, a strong supporter of the project, said he would “like to see the mountains covered with wind turbines.” It would be a twenty-first century industry for an area which has few economic advantages. But it would also compromise the “forever wild” character of the park written into the State Constitution. Large mechanical structures on ridgetops – prominent locations visible by hikers – will change the wilderness and historical character of the area. Any 177-foot-tall structure would have to come with a guarantee that it would be one of only a few for the entire park (some would contend that cell towers are acceptable in this regard). But this is for the personal electric use of one property owner. All property owners in the Catskills have electrical needs, and in the name of fairness, if you grant one person the right to violate zoning law and build a 177-foot-tall tower for his own electrical needs, you should grant it to all. Such a situation would violate another Town of Denning Law regarding variances, that “the variance will not alter the essential character of the surrounding area.” And it would certainly violate the vision of the conservationists who created the Park as a wilderness area. As our society’s energy needs grow and grow and grow, there is going to be increasing pressure on using even our wildest areas for energy production. We should resist the pressure and keep the sanctity of the park boundary.
The engineer of the project, Mr. Chase, noted that there was no objection to a similar project in the town of Grahamsville. Of course not – the project was outside of Catskill State Park. I did not object to the wind turbine there and I do not object to more being placed on ridges and farms in New York State outside of state parks wherever they are allowed by zoning law. But I certainly object to their being placed inside state parks, particularly inside the second-largest wild area in the entire state, especially when there is zoning law against structures of such a height.
I wish to also briefly say a word about the particular area where this turbine is being placed. I visited it while campaigning as the Democratic Candidate for Town Council in Denning. Mr. Chase has provided data about the sound output of the proposed turbine. The number he offers is that the turbine produces 45 decibels of sound at 1,000 feet distance. I find this use of statistics somewhat misleading, first of all: 45 decibels of sound at 1,000 feet must mean that the actual sound production at the source is around 100 decibels – about the same as a lawnmower. Listening to neighbors’ lawnmowers is sometimes necessary, but to imagine a lawnmower going all day and all night is not pleasant. And 45 decibels was noted as being essentially equivalent to “background.” But the chair of Denning’s Zoning Board of Appeals had to admit that background noise at the end of Mountain Lane, by the proposed turbine, is not 45 decibels, but 30 decibels or even lower (his decibel meter would simply read 30 or “LO” at the site). This confirms what we who live in the mountains suspected: “sound travels here,” we say, which really just means there is so little competing noise to drown it out. And the alteration of the sonic profile of the area – the loss of that silence that many of us come here for – to be replaced by a continual mechanical drone, no matter how understated, is a serious loss. Town of Denning law specifically prohibits “noxious” uses of property, citing as one such reason “emission of noise.” But to me even if we were discussing a completely silent 177-foot-tall structure I would object to its being placed inside Catskill State Park.
Let us look at one more consideration: perhaps there are arguments against putting other types of tall structures up, but isn’t there a compelling ecological reason for wind energy? Doesn’t that perhaps trump other considerations? My answer: this project is not in the least ecologically sensitive or viable. You cannot “green” luxury. This is the construction of a 177-foot-tall structure priced at $360,000 – largely funded by taxpayers – for one property’s electric needs. Even if it miraculously ran for thirty years without any additional financial input or maintenance, the cost of the electricity produced over thirty years would be $1,000 per month. There will be no grid-tie: this will be for one property! The words for this are “extravagant,” and “wasteful,” not “green.” I see no compelling public benefit for such a vanity project.
In summation, I think the proposal should be rejected as 1) ill-advised and out of proportion to the Park and its proper uses 2) against the laws of the Town of Denning, even those governing the granting of variances and 3) without compelling public benefit or good cause. And as I say – this is not the last such case. The wind turbine built in Grahamsville was only recently built, and others will follow. We need to uphold local zoning laws on this issue now, and set only precedents which will be good for the character and purpose of Catskill State Park.
Sincerely, John Kuhner
I came back up to the mountains last night after a delightful few days in the city – though at the end I started to get haunted by the melancholy which sometimes tugs at me when confronted with city dwelling: I can tolerate the loneliness at the heart of my life as long as nature is everywhere around me, but take it away and the demons have their way with me. But I got my share of civilized life, speaking at NYU, going to a wedding, seeing a movie, going to the Met, playing with other people’s children and having drinks with friends.
When I returned to the cabin there was snow covering the ground. The sky was clear and the air bitterly crisp. Walking up the hill and peering into the woods I stopped – was that someone inside my house? – no, no it wasn’t. Venus was so bright and so low on the horizon that I thought it was a light in my cabin.
This was but a fond hope. This is the time of year when there are no tracks in the snow besides my own. Even the animals weren’t going out in the cold, it was so shocking to the system. In a month we will be used to it and resume our activities, but now it seems quite terrible.
Entering the cabin I found it was nineteen degrees on the inside. It was something below ten outside. I got the fire going, but it was a cold, windy night, and the cabin was hard to heat. I got it up to sixty-five before it was time to go to sleep, but the first heating of the cabin is only air-deep, and it diffuses rapidly. It was back down to thirty-six when I woke up in the morning and went off to work. I didn’t bother putting my groceries away, as the air of the cabin is refrigerator enough at this time of year. Even when I heat the place all I need to do is put my groceries on the floor, where it will be reliably cold.
“Love seeketh not itself to please,
Nor for itself hath any care,
But for another gives its ease,
And builds a heaven in hell’s despair.”
So sung a little Clod of Clay,
Trodden with the cattle’s feet,
But a Pebble of the brook
Warbled out these metres meet:
“Love seeketh only Self to please,
To bind another to its delight,
Joys in another’s loss of ease,
And builds a hell in heaven’s despite.” - William Blake
I’ll be speaking this Wednesday, November 20th at NYU on the topic Religion, Spirituality, and Healing. I was on a similar panel last year and the students liked what I had to say, so now I’m one of the presenters. 9:30 a.m. to noon or thereabouts. Silver Hall, 31 Washington Place, room 414.
An article in the New York Times which captures pretty well the kind of contempt and arrogance of the owner and designer of the Denning wind turbine project.
As more information has come out, it’s become clear that Mr. Hirsch’s project is just a vanity project and not green. Building a $360,000 structure (much of the price paid for by government subsidies) for 30 years of electricity works out to $1,000 of electricity per month. The system is not grid-tied and will not produce electricity for anyone else. Needless to say, any truly green person would not have energy needs like this (I use less than $10 per month in electricity, by comparison, using a high-efficiency gas generator. More gas will be used to set this wind turbine up than I will use over a lifetime of living in my cabin).
We were circulating a petition asking for a tabling of the vote on the wind turbine, and the vote has indeed been tabled. Ulster County caught wind of the project and put a stay on it themselves, pending their own review. This is good.
There’s a town board meeting tonight at 7 p.m., and one of the items of business will be our petition to get a stay on the decision to build a 177′ wind turbine here in town. I’ve heard complaints from some of my environmentalist friends – we need renewable energy sources – but I still think it’s a terrible idea to put the energy industry inside our state parks. Catskill State Park and Adirondack State Park are “forever wild,” and they have to be defended that way. I understand, mountaintops are great places for wind energy – but they have a value far beyond that. Thoreau from his essay “Walking“:
I wish to speak a word for Nature, for absolute freedom and wildness, as contrasted with a freedom and culture merely civil… What I have been preparing to say is, that in Wildness is the preservation of the World. Every tree sends its fibers forth in search of the Wild. The cities import it at any price. Men plow and sail for it. From the forest and wilderness come the tonics and barks which brace mankind. Our ancestors were savages. The story of Romulus and Remus being suckled by a wolf is not a meaningless fable. The founders of every state which has risen to eminence have drawn their nourishment and vigor from a similar wild source. It was because the children of the Empire were not suckled by the wolf that they were conquered and displaced by the children of the northern forests who were.
I believe in the forest, and in the meadow, and in the night in which the corn grows. We require an infusion of hemlock, spruce or arbor vitae in our tea. There is a difference between eating and drinking for strength and from mere gluttony. The Hottentots eagerly devour the marrow of the koodoo and other antelopes raw, as a matter of course. Some of our northern Indians eat raw the marrow of the Arctic reindeer, as well as various other parts, including the summits of the antlers, as long as they are soft. And herein, perchance, they have stolen a march on the cooks of Paris. They get what usually goes to feed the fire. This is probably better than stall-fed beef and slaughterhouse pork to make a man of. Give me a wildness whose glance no civilization can endure—as if we lived on the marrow of koodoos devoured raw.
But my perspective will always be the minority position – though it was absolutely, positively the reason for the creation of these parks in the first place. What people can understand better is that this is the first proposed 17-storey structure in the town; but if approved others will be proposed, and each time it will be harder and harder to say no. This changes the entire area, and the wildness people look for here, they will soon need to look elsewhere to find. I quote the letter from the President of the Appalachian Mountain Club in the November/December 2013 issue of AMC Outdoors Magazine, to show that this is a phenomenon occurring all over the nation:
We hear a lot about the need for new sources of energy, whether from traditional or alternative sources. The fact is, conservation is the greenest energy there is: the cleanest energy is that which is not used.
Our nation’s insatiable appetite for energy affects more than our health and national security. Increasingly, it is threatening our public lands….
Even renewable energy sources like wind can have negative environmental consequences. Inappropriately sited wind power projects, and the maintenance roads and other infrastructure that comes with them, threaten mountain ecosystems and compromise the wilderness experience. AMC is working with several states on implementing siting guidelines that lead to smart choices about where these projects are placed.
In local terms: keep these kind of projects outside the second-largest park and wild and scenic area in New York State, the Catskills.
We’ve created an online version of the petition we’ve been circulating here in town. I think preservation of the Catskills from 17-storey buildings is a worthy endeavor and one that has value not just for our local residents but for everyone. I encourage everyone to follow the link and sign.