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.