New York Towns Hope Wind Power Will Save Economy

Tiny towns on upstate New York's Tug Hill Plateau have been losing jobs for decades. Now, they're betting on the power of the wind to pull them out of their economic slump. Tug Hill is home to the largest wind farm in the East, and the turbines are pumping a million dollars into the local economy.

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And now the other side of wind power, harnessing the wind. Property owners are earning millions of dollars leasing land for wind turbines. Small towns struggling for survival are reaping big tax windfalls. The tradeoff is that some ridgelines will never look the same. The largest wind farm east of the Mississippi is atop the Tug Hill Plateau, north of Syracuse, New York. North Country Public Radio's David Sommerstein reports.

DAVID SOMMERSTEIN reporting:

Pat Burke looks out her kitchen window and remembers all the dairy farms.

Ms. PAT BURKE: Thirty-five years ago there were farms up and down this road of people are age, and we are probably one of two couples left.

SOMMERSTEIN: Neighbors sold their cows and moved away. Unemployment went up. Far from big roads and cities and with punishing winters, the future on the Tug Hill Plateau looked bleak. Then the typical rural decline story did a 180. Horizon Wind Energy noticed the steady winds blowing of Lake Ontario. The company built a 120-turbine wind farm amidst the cow pastures. Each tower pays the landowner 6 to 10 thousand dollars a year, depending on how the wind blows. The Burke's have eight of them soaring over 200 acres of fields. Marginal farmland turned lucrative crop.

Ms. BURKE: It would have been a huge decision to have to leave dairying and sell off our land in order to have an income, and it's allowed us to retire with some ease.

SOMMERSTEIN: The Burkes see a vastly different landscape outside now. In fact, they invite friends over to gawk. Pat's husband Bill says they're proud to be a part of America's energy solution.

Mr. BILL BURKE: It's kind of hard to gas up your SUV, turn around and say that they don't look good. Sooner or later we need to move on to something.

SOMMERSTEIN: The wind farm will generate 9 million dollars a year in local taxes. And suddenly the future looks rosy. Terry Thisse is supervisor of the Town of Martinsburg.

Mr. TERRY THISSE (Supervisor, Town of Martinsburg): Right now my taxable budget is under $400,000 a year. The first payment from the wind towers will be approximately 1.2 million.

SOMMERSTEIN: That's for a town of just over a thousand people. Residents were worrying about a withering tax base just a few years ago. Now they're talking about new playgrounds, free garbage pick up, broadband internet access. More teachers and computers at school.

Mr. STEVE HANO: Oh, one, two, three, four, five, six, seven, eight, nine, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14, 15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20. Probably about 25 or 30.

SOMMERSTEIN: Steve Hano surveys the 400-foot turbines scattered outside his auto shop. The company pays him about a thousand dollars a year just to put up with the new view.

Mr. HANO: The windmills is coming whether you like it or not. So, rather than fight it I joined it. And now I don't complain.

SOMMERSTEIN: The visual impact is often the biggest criticism of wind power. Noise is a close second. The day I was there the turbines were actually pretty quiet with an occasional whishing sound. People agree they are louder than they expected. Most say they've gotten used to it. But Gordon Yancy says they're intolerable, especially at night. I caught up with him over the phone.

Mr. GORDON YANCY: You've got that whirr, whirr, whirr, that shh, shh, shh, shh.

SOMMERSTEIN: Yancy owns The Flatrock Inn. He sees an economic downside. He says turbine construction hurt his tourism business. He predicts property values will fall, and no amount of money can replace the unspoiled view and serenity of the place where he grew up.

Mr. YANCY: What they've done here is completely desecrated this region. In years to come they're going to realize that they've sold themselves out.

SOMMERSTEIN: Studies are split over how much big wind farms actually affect property values, but they do alter the land in dramatic ways. Martinsburg town supervisor Terry Thisse takes that change seriously.

Mr. THISSE: It's still a very wild area, but now there's a huge wind tower sticking up. It was a sacrifice that I was part of changing, I guess. Hopefully I'll never regret it, but that could come down the road some day.

SOMMERSTEIN: Asked what other small towns considering wind farm projects should do, Thisse thinks for a long minute. He says it's a tough decision, but then he adds, grab it while you can. For NPR News, I'm David Sommerstein in Northern New York.

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Correction March 17, 2006

NPR reported that the Tug Hill turbines were built by Horizon Energy. In fact, the project was developed by PPM Energy, a subsidiary of Atlantic Renewables. It is jointly owned by PPM and Horizon.

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