{Ed. Note: This is the third in a series of articles the Devils Lake Journal is running on wind power. We will end the series with an article on wind power’s impact economically regionally and in the state.}
Wind farms bring not only the promise of jobs and money to rural communities across America, but sometimes deep divisions that can rip apart families, friendships and the fabric of once tight-knit towns.
Proposed wind projects have fractured rural communities across the country, pitting neighbor against neighbor in fights over property rights and money, according to a six-month GateHouse Media Investigation.

Wind farms bring not only the promise of jobs and money to rural communities across America, but sometimes deep divisions that can rip apart families, friendships and the fabric of once tight-knit towns.

Proposed wind projects have fractured rural communities across the country, pitting neighbor against neighbor in fights over property rights and money, according to a six-month GateHouse Media Investigation.

Many residents in these communities worry about the impact these turbines will have on their homes – some families interviewed have abandoned their houses after wind farms started operating; others have stayed but suffer from shadow flicker, noises and vibrations.

GateHouse Media reached out to seven wind energy companies, including some of the nation’s largest, and two nonprofit groups that support the wind industry. Those representatives denied almost all of the investigation’s findings.

But dozens of interviews, court records, state commission filings and board meeting minutes paint a picture of controversy in town after town across the country.

Residents erupted in a shouting match at a town meeting in Ellington Township, Michigan, in December in 2016. One of them had signed a lease with the wind company; the other didn’t want the project.

In nearby Almer Township, resident Norman Stephens said somebody destroyed his lawn with Roundup after he spoke out against a proposed wind farm.

Jim and Mary Ann Miller lost friends by opposing the project near their home in Luverne, North Dakota. They said they were taunted at town meetings and shunned by neighbors.

Industry company representatives disputed these projects create community divisions, although they acknowledged some developments spur a period of debate as residents seek information and grapple with impending change.

“These wind farms obviously are creating a big change in these communities,” said Evan Vaughn of the American Wind Energy Association, the trade and lobbying arm of the industry. “But it’s a change for the better.”

Split in New York

The neighboring towns of Hopkinton and Parishville in northern New York currently face widespread division over a proposed wind farm that would erect as many as 40 industrial turbines throughout its rural pastures.

A group of residents called Concerned Citizens for Rural Preservation formed to oppose the project. Its members show up at town meetings and pass out yard signs saying “No industrial wind turbines” that now dot lawns across the county.

Other lawns belong to families supporting the development and feature “Yes wind power” signs along the sides of the roads. A pro-wind group called North County for a Brighter Future also formed. It paid for an ad in the local newspaper blaming opponents for using scare tactics.

The controversy flares up at town meetings and in letters to the editor in the local newspaper. It has ended friendships and split families. Project opponent Janice Pease said she no longer speaks to her grandfather, a World War II veteran and major landowner who signed a lease to place two turbines on his land.

“It has divided the community, even families,” said Hopkinton Supervisor Sue Wood. “The majority doesn’t want the wind turbines, but the people who signed leases really want it.”

The project, called North Ridge Wind Farm, would pump $750,000 annually into local coffers – divided among the county, two towns and the school district. It also would pay participating property owners a combined $500,000 annually for use of their land.

Avangrid Renewables, a U.S. subsidiary of the Spanish utility giant Iberdrola, is developing the wind farm.

“These investments are, of course, going to represent some amount of change in the community, and we want to do the best that we can to make sure the community is a partner in bringing that change along responsibly and appropriately,” Copleman said. “I think from there people will wrestle with various questions about what it means to develop a wind farm in a community. It’s our job to do the best we can to answer those questions.”

Accusations of secrecy

Many blame the wind companies for fostering the division, claiming developers enter communities in secret to sign up landowners years before publicly announcing the project.

By the time the general public learns about it, developers already have the easements they need from landowners and the assurances they seek from elected officials to develop their wind farms, several residents said.

Many said they felt blindsided and angry.

“To this date, in all of these projects, there are many people still unaware that these giants are coming to their communities,” said Tina Graziano of Villenova, New York, where two companies want to build wind farms.

Graziano made the comments at a Chautauqua County Legislature meeting in January, along with several other people upset about the community division, which many blamed on the wind companies’ tactics.

“These wind companies slide, snowball the uneducated board members, keep the notifications at a minimum to deter community opposition,” said Graziano said at the meeting. “The community is now split.”

Developers aren’t being secretive; they’re being cautious, said AWEA’s Mike Speerschneider. 

It can take years to determine a project’s feasibility due to easements, permitting, environmental studies and other factors. They don’t want to announce anything until they’re sure they can proceed.

“A very small percentage of projects become anything,” Speerschneider said, “so it doesn’t make sense to announce it publicly every time you look at a particular piece of property.”

But that secrecy, whatever the reason, can drive communities apart. When Cary Shineldecker went door to door informing residents of the proposed wind farm in Mason County, Michigan, he said people were shocked to learn neighbors had signed agreements.

“We had people break down and cry when they found out that people who had been their lifelong friends, who had babysat each other’s kids for 50 years, and they never even told their neighbors,” Shineldecker said. “They felt so betrayed their friend who lived right next to them had never told them they leased to the company.”

The same thing happened when Portuguese energy giant EDP was developing its 77-megawatt Jericho Rise Wind Farm in Chateaugay, New York, residents there said.

Glenda King knows the heartache firsthand. Although she and her family publicly opposed the project, adjacent neighbors quietly signed a lease agreement with EDP to erect three large turbines on their property.

King was devastated when she found out. One of the 496-foot turbines looms just inches from her property line. It screeches whenever the giant motor house rotates in search of optimum wind conditions, and its red lights blink incessantly, keeping the family up at night, she said.

“There is a huge emotional, psychological and physical effect from these things,” King said. “It’s disgraceful how these companies come into economically deprived area and rip apart families, friends and neighbors.”